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Esteban Reina looked down from the tall stepladder. Above him was the skylight he'd just repaired. He'd explained to his boss, the museum's manager, that the repair he'd started that morning was more complicated than he'd anticipated, and that he would have to remove the entire skylight to do the job right.
"Before it rains," the manager said. "Make sure it's fixed before it rains."
Reina had taken his time, but kept an eye on the sky. Rain wasn't forecast until the night, plenty of time.
It was now five o'clock. The skylight had been removed, the weather stripping replaced, and the skylight again rested in its opening, allowing gray light to filter into the small, single gallery of Casa de Seville, a not-for-profit museum of sorts supported by a grant from two Hispanic-American businessmen and donations at the door. Devoted to bringing a taste of Seville, Spain, to Miami, it was located on Southwest Eighth Street"Little Havana."
The collection wasn't especially important in a historical sense, nor was the worth of the displays, maps, dioramas of fifteenth-century Seville, and costumes replicating what was then fashionable very high. If worth was determined by size, a large painting by an obscure, modestly capable nineteenth-century artist, Fernando Reyes (influenced by the respected seventeenth-century religious painter, Murillo), was the most valuable offering in the small space. The scene was Columbus on his knees in Seville offering up his Book of Privileges to King Fernando and Queen Isabel. It was but one of myriad paintings done over the centuries depicting that event; Reyes's work was considered by collectors to be barely adequate; he was perhaps notinfluenced enough by Murillo.
Reina, Casa de Seville's part-time maintenance man, went to a rear door, opened it, and placed the ladder outside. He then went to the men's room, where he washed his hands, changed out of work clothes into slacks, a floral shirt, and sandals, and left the museum, pausing to say good night to the manager.
"Fixed good as new," Reina said. "And before the rain."
"Excellent. See you in the morning, Esteban."
"Sí, mañana por la mañana."
Warren Munsch assiduously avoided Miami's fancier Chinese restaurants in favor of the one he sat in this night, a small storefront take-out place with four tables, in a strip mall near the airport. He wasn't particularly concerned with the quality of the food on his plate, as long as it wasn't foul. Warren Munsch ate to satisfy hunger, to fill the void three times a day. That's how he approached most aspects of his life.
The ribs and fried dumplings rested heavily in his digestive tract as he left the harsh fluorescent lighting of Go Go Hunan and stepped into the relative darkness of the parking lot. It was oppressively hot and humid; he felt as though he were wrapped in a rubber sheet. He looked up at the sound of a jet approaching Miami International, the aircraft slicing across the full moon like a thin bug. Munsch hummed the old song "Moon Over Miami" as he walked to where he'd parked his new black Cadillac at a far end of the lot, away from other cars. He got in, cracked open a window, turned on the AC, lit a cigarette, and checked his watch. Morrie would be leaving his house about now, he thought.
Garraga, too, if he hadn't drunk his dinner and fallen asleep in a stupor. Two hours to go.
Another jet screeched overhead. Munsch opened the glove compartment and fingered an envelope containing airline tickets. He wasn't fond of flying, although he could brace himself when flight was unavoidable. He closed the glove compartment, leaned back against the vehicle's headrest, and closed his eyes. Maybe I'm getting a little too old for this, he thought. Lately, he'd found himself becoming forgetful, small lapses but annoying: Why-did-I-come-into-this-room? sort of things. It wouldn't have worried him if he were in some other line of work. But since coming out of Raiford a year ago, his second stint behind bars, he realized that forgetting something, even a seemingly insignificant something, could land him back there, which he was determined to avoid. Maybe this job should be his last. It promised a good payday, plenty of money to get out of Miami, maybe go to his daughter's house in Oregon. He grimaced at the thought. Not with all those kids running around. W. C. Fields was right about kids: "Anyone who hates children and dogs can't be all bad." The Bahamas, the British Virgins, maybe even South America or Cuba. He opened his eyes, lit another cigarette, and smiled. Cuba was appealing. Warren Munsch liked Cuban women, and if there were plenty of them in Miami, imagine what Havana must be like.
"Buenos días, señorita," he said to no one, drawing deeply, and coughing.
An hour later, after having dozed off, he left the parking lot and drove south on Red Road into Coral Gables, a ten-minute drive, where he slowly circumvented the European-style fountain at the intersection of Sevilla Avenue and DeSoto and Granada boulevards, one of fourteen such roundabouts written into the city plan back in the 1920s. He pulled to the curb, turned off the lights, and lit up, leaving the engine and air conditioning running. The heavy heat and humidity, and now the rain, had cut down on the number of people on the street that night, although it wasn't deserted. It never was. Coral Gables, "the City Beautiful," seldom failed to draw tourists day or night, summer or winter. Nothing dumber than a tourist, Munsch thought; he'd relieved his share of them of their vacation money. No easier creature on earth to scam than a dumb tourist.
Garraga was the first to arrive. He walked slowly, stopping to stare at the fountain as though it held some special fascination, making too much of a point that he wasn't going anywhere in particular. Eventually, the tall, lanky Cuban, wearing jeans and a yellow tank top, sidled up to the Caddy, looked around, opened the front passenger door, and slid in.
"How are you, amigo?" Munsch asked, a fresh cigarette sending a cloud of blue smoke in Garraga's direction.
"Good," Garraga said, adding his pungent whiskey breath to the Caddy's interior atmosphere.
"You have the other car?"
"Sí. A Taurus. Silver."
"Not too new."
"Ninety-five. Where's Morrie?"
"Late, as usual."
"There he is."
Garraga pointed to a green four-door sedan that had entered the traffic circle and approached where Munsch and Garraga sat. It was driven by a blond woman wearing large round sunglasses. The man next to her sat resolutely, looking straight ahead, like a husband being driven by a wife to a hospital for life-threatening surgery. He was bald on top but had long silver hair slicked back at the sides and tied into a small ponytail. He was tieless; the collar of his white shirt protruded inches above the back of his blue suit jacket.
"I told him to leave the bitch home," Munsch muttered.
She pulled up behind the Caddy. Munsch saw in his rearview mirror that she was using her mirror to adjust her hair. Morrie turned to her and said something. It looked to Munsch that they'd started arguing. Morrie opened his door and started to get out, but turned and yelled something at her. She responded with a pointed gesture. He slammed the door, walked to the Caddy, and got in the back.
"Why the hell did you bring her?" Munsch asked.
"I needed a ride."
The blonde put her car in reverse, jerked back a dozen
feet, then pulled out from the curb, almost sideswiping another vehicle.
"You should get rid of her," Munsch said.
"Forget her," Morrie said.
"You tell her what we're doing?" Munsch asked.
"No, of course not. Hello, Garraga."
"What 'a you say, Morrie?"
"I say let's go do it. My sinuses are killing me."
With Morrie noisily using an inhaler in the backseat, Munsch drove to Coconut Grove, following Garraga's directions, until reaching Alice Wainwright Park, a lush waterfront recreation area surrounded by mansions, including one owned by Sylvester Stallone and another by Madonna. The light rain started to come down harder, and Munsch turned on the wipers.
"Over there," Garraga said, indicating a silver car parked on Brickell Avenue.
Munsch parked the Caddy in a well-lighted area and they walked to the Taurus. "Damn rain," Munsch said. "I hate rain."
He took the keys from Garraga and got behind the wheel of the Taurus. "Where did you get this?" he asked.
"Opa-Locka. The airport parking lot."
"You couldn't have gotten better?" Morrie asked from the backseat.
"What do you want, a Rolls?" Garraga said. "Munsch told me: nothing fancy."
They drove into the Little Havana area of Miami, also known as the Latin Quarter because a heavy influx of immigrants
from Central and South America had made it less exclusively Cuban, and parked across the street from Casa de Seville. They sat there quietly, Munsch chain-smoking cigarettes, Morrie chain-inhaling loudly, Garraga slouched passively in the front passenger seat.
"This Esteban, you trust him?" Munsch asked Garraga.
"He needed the money. He's a snowbird."
"That cocaine is garbage," Morrie said. "Only animals use it. You have to smoke so many goddamn cigarettes, Munsch? I can't breathe in here. It kills my sinuses."
Garraga laughed. "You want me to smoke a cigar, Morrie?""Better not put a match near your mouth, Garraga. You smell like a brewery," Morrie said.
Munsch ground out his cigarette in the ashtray and turned off the engine. "Okay," he said.
They stepped from the car into the rain and quickly crossed the street. Casa de Seville was a one-story white stucco building with a blue tile roof. The public entered through carved double oak doors set in the middle of the building. Two windows covered with black wrought-iron grillwork flanked the doors.
Attached to one side of the building was another one-story structure housing a bodega in which an old Cuban, illuminated by overhead fluorescent lights, stood behind a counter talking to a man seated on a stool. They were the only people in the small grocery.
A narrow alley separated the other side of the museum from a two-story apartment building with four units. A woman stared at the rain through a glass door on the ground floor. Aware
she was watching them, Munsch led Morrie and Garraga into the bodega. Munsch now saw that the customer talking to the owner wore a tan uniform. A security guard? He didn't look to Munsch as though he could provide much security for anything or anyone. He was fat, probably in his paunchy fifties, with strands of shiny black hair pulled over the top of his bald head.
The old man behind the counter eyed them as Morrie browsed a magazine rack and Munsch looked at a platter of coquitos on the counter, the coconut candies brought in daily from the Caribbean. Garraga stayed by the door. He'd become edgy, moving from foot to foot.
"Cuánto es?" Munsch asked, pointing to the candies.
"Seventy-five cents," the bodega owner said.
Munsch threw a dollar on the counter and accepted his change. He took a candy and joined Garraga at the door. "Morrie," he said sharply. Morrie replaced the men's magazine and followed the others out to the sidewalk.
"What about the cop drinkin' coffee in there?" Morrie asked.
"What cop?" Munsch said. "That fat slob with his belly hanging out of his shirt? Forget him. He doesn't even have a gun."
They walked along the front of Casa de Seville to avoid the rain, and stopped at the far end of the building, by the alley. Garraga nonchalantly crossed it to where he could see the glass door leading into the apartment building. The woman was gone. He looked up and down the street, then motioned with his head. The others followed him into the alley to the rear of the museum.
Behind Casa de Seville was a small grassy area bordered by a high chain-link fence and containing two Dumpsters. A red metal door provided rear access to the museum. Above it was a slatted red-and-white metal awning; the pinging sound of raindrops was magnified as the three men huddled beneath it.
"There's the ladder," Garraga said, pointing to where one rested against a Dumpster.
"And there's no guard?" Morrie asked.
"No," Garraga said. "No guards."
"Don't light a goddamn cigarette," Morrie said to Munsch, who was about to.
Munsch ignored him and lit up.
"There's just the alarm system," Garraga said. "No guards, no night watchmen. Reina says there's no money. They pay him peanuts."
"All right," Munsch said, coughing and extinguishing the cigarette with his shoe. "Go on. Let's get it done."
Garraga leaned the unfolded stepladder against the wall and started up. He paused once he'd climbed onto the roof's overhang, looked down and said to Morrie, "Come on."
Morrie said to Munsch, "Why don't you go up with him."
"I have to get the car," Munsch said. "You don't drive."
"I don't have to."
"You don't have to what?"
Another cigarette went to Munsch's lips. "It doesn't matter why you don't drive, Morrie. Get up there and help Garraga, like we planned."
Garraga scrambled higher onto the roof and waited for Morrie to reach the top of the ladder. Morrie took Garraga's extended hand and clumsily joined him. They crouched low as they made their way to the skylight, Morrie muttering under his breath about pain in his knees. Garraga pulled a penlight from his jeans pocket and directed its beam on the skylight. "There it is," he said, "the alarm wires, just like Reina said." Two small sheathed wires protruded from where one edge of the skylight made contact with the roof.
Garraga withdrew a pocketknife and a small roll of black electrician's tape from his jeans and handed the flashlight to Morrie. "Hold it steady," the Cuban said. "I have to splice these to kill the alarm lead to the skylight."
"Why didn't your guy just cut it?" Morrie asked.
"Because, Morrie, that would have shown up on the alarm panel, a break in the system. Just shut up, huh, and hold the goddamn light."
"You'll get electrocuted in this rain," Morrie grumbled, keeping the penlight's beam squarely on Garraga's hands.
"Okay," Garraga said, slipping the knife back in his pocket. "Grab that edge of the skylight and lift. It's not attached."
Morrie slid his fingers beneath the skylight's metal lip and tried to lift it. "It's stuck," he said.
"Just gunk Reina put on it for a seal. Come on, lift, it'll come free."
It did, with a sucking sound, and they slid the skylight away from the opening.
"The rain'll mess up the floor down there," Morrie said.
"So what?" Garraga said.
Morrie handed the penlight back to Garraga, who directed its beam down into the gallery. Morrie peered over the edge. "That's a hell of a drop," he said.
"Yeah, well, you don't have to worry about that, Morrie."
Garraga dangled his legs through the opening, lowered himself until his elbows on the roof supported him, then continued his descent until he hung by both hands. He let go, the sound of his contact with the floor joined by a Spanish obscenity.
Morrie trained the light on Garraga as he got to his feet, looked around the gallery, and limped to the wall on which the Fernando Reyes painting of Columbus offering up his Book of Privileges hung. Morrie shifted the light to the painting. That's what we're supposed to steal? he thought. Must be worth plenty for what Munsch said they'd be paid once the painting was delivered.
Garraga expected the painting to be firmly anchored to the wall, but it was attached only by two brackets at the top. Some gentle back-and-forth movement caused them to eventually pull free of the wall, leaving the large framed canvas in Garraga's hands. He leaned it against the wall and went to a supply room in which Reina said there would be another stepladder. Garraga positioned it beneath the opening in the roof, brought the painting to it, climbed the ladder until he was close to the ceiling, and pulled the painting up behind him. Morrie positioned himself to receive it.
"It's too big," Garraga said as he tried to wedge the painting through the opening.
"Try it on an angle," Morrie suggested.
"I did. It's too big. Can't you see that?"
"Take the frame off. Munsch said to get the painting, not the frame."
Garraga returned to the floor, opened his jackknife, and began to cut the canvas away from the simple wood frame, staying as close to the perimeter as possible. That task finished, he rolled the canvas, went up the ladder, and pushed it through to Morrie. He hoisted himself up to the roof: "We got to put the skylight back."
They did, the painting was dropped to Munsch, and Garraga and Morrie joined him on the ground. Garraga tossed the ladder in a Dumpster and they turned to leave the area, Munsch
in the lead. As he turned to start down the alley, he stopped abruptly. Morrie and Garraga came to his side. Coming toward them was the fat man in the tan uniform they'd seen in the bodega.
"Hey, what are you doing back there?" he asked, continuing to waddle in their direction.
"Who the hell are you?" Munsch asked.
"What'a you got there?" he asked, still narrowing the gap.
"Come on," Munsch said, starting to lead his colleagues up the alley again.
The guard placed himself squarely in their path.
Munsch and the others now saw that the guard was carrying something in his right hand.
"He's got a piece," Garraga said, his voice rising.
"Stop!" the guard ordered.
Garraga answered by pulling a small Saturday night special from the waistband of his jeans, pointing it at the guard, and pulling the trigger. The shot struck him in the stomach.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Morrie asked.
"Stupid," Munsch said. "Let's get out of here."
They ran past the guard, moaning and writhing on the ground, his stubby fingers pressed to the wound. The "piece" he'd held in his right hand was lying next to him. It was a cell phone. Morrie started to bend over the guard but Munsch grabbed his collar and pulled him upright.
"Leave him," Munsch said.
"I think he's dead," Morrie said.
"He ain't dead," Garraga said. "All that fat stopped the
The three men reached the street and continued running to where they'd parked the silver Taurus. They jumped in, and Munsch drove too fast to his Cadillac.
"I thought there wasn't supposed to be no guard," Morrie muttered.
"Why the hell did you shoot him?" Munsch asked, running a light. "There were three of us. The guy didn't even have a gun."
"I thought I saw one," Garraga said. "Just shut up and drive. Forget about it. Just get the money, Munsch, and we split."
"The buyer's not going to be happy there's no frame,"
"The hell with that," Morrie said. "It's the best we could do. It was too big. Dumb bastard, shooting the guy."
"He won't be happy," Munsch repeated.
"The buyer. Maybe he wanted the frame, too."
"What do we do with the Taurus?" Morrie asked.
"Just leave it. Do I have to think of everything?"
Munsch dropped Garraga and Morrie where they'd met up with him at the DeSoto Plaza and the fountain.
"How about a lift home?" Morrie said to Munsch.
"Call your cheerful blond chauffeur. I don't have time."
Munsch handed Garraga and Morrie envelopes, each containing two thousand dollars in cash.
"When do we get the rest?" Morrie asked. "I got bills to pay."
"When I get back from L.A. Cool it till then. And keep your mouth shut, huh, especially with your bimbo."
From the Audio Cassette edition.