A man with a 5-inch lockback knife buried to its heel in his chest stumbles into Café Olé on West Dixie, settles into a chair, and leans his shoulder against the wall. The barista looks up from his issue of Automundo and sees the bleeding man. “Puta madré, dude! You’re stabbed!”
The man says, “Can you call 911 for me and then bring me a tall vanilla latté and a straw.”
The barista makes the call. The young girl sitting at a table by the door cries when she sees the blood splattered on the yellow knife handle and soaked into the man’s FIU tee shirt. The man with her, who might be her father but is not, tells her to close her eyes and think bright thoughts.
The bleeding man coughs and moans. He asks the barista for a towel or a rag or something. “I hope you don’t mind if I wait here for the ambulance. You can’t even breathe out there.” He’s talking about the shroud of smoke from the fires in the Everglades that has settled over the county. The fires have been burning for seven days now. The bleeding man looks at the young girl and says, “Is this the end of the world, honey?”
The barista brings a towel, the latté, and a straw and sets them on the table. The man says, “I can’t pay you for this.”
“Por la casa.”
The man smiles and reaches for the towel.
“You got no hands, dude,” the barista says.
The man holds up his lopped arms. “Look, Ma . . .”
“I got stabbed.”
“With your hands, I mean.”
A Miami-Dade police officer walks in and speaks into the radio microphone looped to his epaulet. He’s making sure the paramedics are on their way. He nods to the young girl and the man with her and stops at the bleeding man’s table. The girl and the man slip their disposable facemasks over their mouths and noses and leave the café. The officer looks at the knife and whistles. “What happened to you, partner?”
The barista says, “He got stabbed.”
“Not talking to you.”
“Just trying to help.”
“Back the fuck off, José!”
The bleeding man says, “Flesh-eating bacteria.”
“No, I meant the knife. Who did this to you?”
“Cecil Twitty, this guy that lives in my building, and his girlfriend, Sparkle. Would you mind peeling the straw and putting it in my latté.”
The officer bites the end of the paper sleeve over the straw and spits it out. He blows on the straw and shoots the sleeve in a loop across the room. He taps the straw into the drink. “And what’s your name?”
“Clark Chapman. But they call me Handsome.”
Clark looks puzzled, but then gets it. “I see what you mean.”
“Do you know where I could find Twitty and Sparkle?”
Clark points with his chin to the plate glass window. “There they are, the two jamokes, across the street in front of the Pita Hut.”
Officer Zane Brophy asks Sparkle to take a seat in the back of his squad car while he has a word with Cecil. He calls for backup. The paramedics slide Clark onto the gurney and wheel him to the ambulance. Cecil says, “That’s a hundred-dollar German knife right there.”
Brophy’s standing over Cecil who’s leaning on the trunk of the squad car. Brophy waits for the siren to fade. He says to Cecil, “Why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Aren’t you going to read me my rights?”
“I know my rights.”
“I know you do.”
“Sparkle is pregnant.”
“How old is she?”
“Fourteen. And a half.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two on Monday.”
“Where do I start?”
“In the middle.”
“Well, we need a car, need cash, need to get outta Dodge.”
“You’re speaking in the present tense.”
“This leaving of Dodge will not happen.”
“So I should say, ‘We needed a car’?”
“But you don’t anymore.”
Cecil coughs black soot into his hanky. “Look at this shit we’re breathing.”
“So you attempted to rob Mr. Chapman.”
“The not having hands. Can’t fight back, we figured. Wrong. We were drinking this skunky Vino Once—shit smells so bad it’d knock a maggot off a honey wagon—and I whacked Handsome with the bottle. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he dropped. We searched the apartment. I poured water on his face, and he shook himself awake.”
Brophy stares down West Dixie, the view diminished and obscured, like looking at the world through gauzy curtains, like the curtains in what’s-her-name’s bedroom. Monica. His eyes burn.
Cecil says, “He told us he had no money.”
“Theft 101: Rob the rich.”
“I punched him in the windpipe. He bit me and started barking. I stuck him and he got stronger and ran. You might wonder how a handless man can open a door.” Cecil lifts his brow and smiles. “A lever, not a knob.”
Brophy leans into the squad car and shakes Sparkle’s shoulder. She wakes and asks him to turn on the AC.
“How many months along are you?”
“I’m not pregnant.”
“Where did Cecil get that idea?”
“I just needed him to do something. It’s so boring here.”
“He did something.”
“So you found the body.”
“Mr. Chapman’s not dead.”
“I saw that. I meant Cary Grant.”
Brophy sits on the curb beside Cecil. “Who’s Cary Grant?”
“Sparkle let it slip.”
“He cooked meth up in Polk County.”
“Stop right there, Cecil. I’m going to Mirandize you, and then we’ll take a ride to headquarters, and you can tell your story.”
“Can we stop at McDonald’s?”
“We’ll have burgers for you at the station.”
“Can I see Sparkle?”
“Probably not for the rest of your life.”
Brophy watches Cecil through the two-way mirror in the interview room. Cecil opens his Big Mac and takes out the pickles. He licks the sauce from the bun and puts fries on the burger because that’s the way the Cubans do it. When he’s finished, Detective Maninderjit Dallah enters, sits, and cleans the table with a Lysol disinfecting wipe. Cecil doesn’t believe Dallah’s a cop. He’s never seen a cop with a turban, a beard, and a bow tie. Cecil has said he doesn’t want a layer; he hates lawyers. Bottom feeders, he says.
“I killed Cary Grant. There was no rhyme or reason; no conscious decision was made. Just a chain of circumstances that went from bad to worse. Bad circumstance number one: I was out of dope. Bad circumstance number two: Cary was not. Number three: I had no money.”
Dallah twists the kara on his wrist and says, “Cruelty, material attachment, greed, and anger are the four rivers of fire.”
Cecil says he has to take a dump. Dallah says we’ll be done shortly. Cecil says he can’t wait. Dallah calls for an officer-escort, and he tells Cecil to wash his hands when he’s done with his business. Warm water, soap, thirty seconds.
Brophy texts his wife and tells her he’s tied up with a case and won’t be home till God knows when. Kiss the girls goodnight. XOXOX.
When Cecil returns, he smiles and says, “That was a load off my mind.”
Dallah says, “Tell me about the madness.”
“I asked him nicely. I said, Cary, tell us where the dope is. He was sprawled out on the ratty couch, feet up on the coffee table, one hand in his pants, the other on the remote. He turned up the volume on the TV. I hit him on the head with the aluminum baseball bat he keeps by the front door. He stood and stepped toward me, but fell. I heard Sparkle in the kitchen going through the drawers and cabinets. I asked him again to tell me where he hid the shit. Sparkle came into the den with a plastic bag, and we tied it over his head and taped it shut. End of story.”
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Last place we looked.”
“Have you killed anyone else, Cecil?”
“What do you mean by kill?”
Brophy’s at Monica Feather’s condo on Key Biscayne when he gets the text that Clark Chapman has died. He rolls out of bed and pours himself a drink. He stares out the bedroom window at the distant orange glow from the Everglades fires. Monica says, “The wife tugging at your leash?”
The young girl says Zoë when the man asks her to repeat her new name. She points to the color she wants: Nice ‘n Easy Extra Light Neutral Blonde. He says, “You’ll look ravishing, my dear” and tells her that they still need to buy scissors and a comb. Detective Dallah’s at Walgreens picking up his wife’s Clozapine. He’s remembering the words of the Guru: The world is like a dream; there is nothing of it that is yours. He wonders why the little girl is wearing her facemask inside the store and why the man keeps rubbing his forehead. What is he struggling with? Something funny going on here? The girl, whose given name is Flor, and who is five, tells the man that the guy with the turban is staring at them. The man, who calls himself Kit, takes her tiny hand in his and leads her away from the pharmacy and toward the registers up front. He’s following us, Zoë says. Dallah gets a text message from Janjak, his wife’s caregiver: need Wings Quilted Overnight Pullups. He walks to Aisle 7 and sees the man and girl leave the store. Probably nothing, he decides.
Kit dyes Zoë’s hair in the men’s room at the Valero station, dries it with paper towels. They walk to Ojus Park and sit at a picnic table by the rec center. The scissors have a finger rest on the eye ring that Kit appreciates, unnecessary but purposeful and elegant. Culture is everything we do that we don’t have to do. He cuts her hair short, maybe too short. Tried for Michelle Williams but got Justin Timberlake. Her head seems lighter, Zoë says. What he hears is seems slighter. When they see Juancho, the tweaked-out sack of shit who lives with Flor’s mom, heading their way, Kit tousles Zoë’s hair and says, “I got this.”
Juancho holds up his droopy camouflage jeans in one hand and pokes Kit in the chest with the other. “Roxy wants her little flower back.” He looks at Zoë, shakes his head, says to Kit, “That’s one sorry-ass disguise, amigo.”
“Roxy’s a crack whore.” Kit can read Juancho’s neck tattoo: Game Over!
“And I’m here to take her back, dickwad. Venga, niña!’
“You can’t have her.”
“Oh, I’ve had her.”
“You ever touch this baby?”
Juancho smiles and says he’s done more than touch. “Ain’t that right, caramelo?”
Kit tells Zoë to close her eyes and think happy thoughts. She puts her arms on the table and her head on her arms. Kit drives the scissors into Juancho’s throat between the e and the O. Juancho grabs for the scissors, and his trousers fall to his knees. He’s gurgling blood. Kit stands and pushes on the scissors until Juancho falls to his back. Kit rolls him over. He tells Zoë that Juancho fell asleep. He holds her face in his bloody hands and says, “Zoë, you’re all that matters.”
Sparkle lies on the bed in her cell and scrapes the plum crazy polish off her fingernails with her thumbnail. She lied to the cops twice. About feeling sad for killing that dirtbag Grant. About not being pregnant. She thinks it’s a riot how she’s doing time with her own little inmate, her get-out-of-jail-free card. They’ll find out soon enough, and they’ll have to let her go.
Last night’s rain put the fires out. The sun is up. The air smells like peppers. There are green and blue canaries trilling in the mango tree. Zoë snuggles under a sheet in the back seat of Kit’s station wagon. They’re parked on the swale outside a nursing home. Kit’s up front, leaning back against the door, the breeze from the open window stirring his hair. He’s reading Zoë a story about a red-haired girl in Canada. He says, “Anne came dancing home in the purple winter twilight across the snowy places.” And Zoë shuts her eyes and lets herself be carried away to a sweeter world.