JUNE 21, 1:38 AM
Billy Joe Franklin loved the darkness. Always had. He could pull it around himself like some sort of magical cloak that endowed him with special powers or he could lean into it and disappear, as he was doing now.
He stood alone on the upper deck of the Tango Key Ferry, a tall, muscular man in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black cap pulled down low over his forehead. Black was his favorite color. Even his hair was black these days, and long, pulled back in a ponytail. You could project anything you wanted to on blackness, he thought, and often wished he’d been born black.
He stared out across the rough, dark waters at the island lights in the distance, a festival of lights, a wonderland, a sleeping paradise. He drank it in, the promise and exquisite beauty of it all. In a little while, he would descend on the island and, like some angry, vengeful god, would plunge it into chaos.
Behind him, a baby cried. Off to his left, a couple huddled close together, arms around each other. Directly behind him lay the stairs to the ferry’s lower deck, where the strollers were stored, the bikes were carried, the cars were parked. The customized black Hummer waited for him down there, more than a hundred grand worth of car that weighed in excess of three tons and would do the job it was designed to do. And parked several blocks from the Hummer’s final destination, in a parking lot where other residents kept their cars at night, was the innocuous black van with walls where the side windows should be. It would take him and Crystal to the cabin in the Tango wilderness preserve.
The cabin had enough food and supplies to last them a month if they were careful. He had planned well. He felt good about everything. He was water, that element that assumed the shape of the vessel into which it was poured. But without Crystal, he was just a vessel half-filled with diluted, impure water. He needed her. And for her, for them, his vessel tonight would be called successful businessman and that was how he would look when he was behind the wheel of the Hummer.
Stars appeared and vanished behind the rapidly moving clouds. Earlier, he’d been worried about hurricane Danielle four hundred and some odd miles out there in the Atlantic, who couldn’t seem to make up her mind about where she was going. A front moving down from the north had been steering her southward, keeping her at coordinates that would bring her over the south end of Cuba so that she would miss the Keys and South Florida altogether. The front might be weakening, though, which meant that Danielle could turn to the north.
This possibility was why the National Hurricane Center probably would issue a hurricane watch sometime after sunrise for Monroe, Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties—in short, everything from the Keys northward for three hundred miles. If that happened and the front continued to weaken, the center would upgrade the watch to a warning sometime later tomorrow. Either way, it didn’t matter to him. He and Crystal would be safe in the cabin even if the hum-cane struck. She, too, was water, and together they would become the Amazon, the Nile, or even the Pacific. They would do just fine in the cabin’s forty-foot-deep cellar. It was well stocked, with enough money hidden on the property to cover just about any unforeseen eventuality.
Even if a warning was issued, it didn’t mean Danielle would hit Tango Key. The center usually erred on the side of caution.
He knew all about the center’s caution.
Until five years ago, he was one of its meteorologists, a behind-the-scenes weatherman with a TV-friendly face and a voice as smooth as old scotch. In those days, he’d had blond hair and a Pepsodent-white smile and should have been in front of the camera. But when he didn’t get the promotion that he deserved, he lost it and made a scene. He was fired. The center mistrusted instability in employees as much as it distrusted instability in storms. End of story.
Twelve years of service, Christ knew how many hurricanes, and suddenly he was gone, out of work, a has-been. He’d grown bitter. His bitterness had rooted so deep inside him that he’d felt forced to change his outward appearance. He wore contacts now instead of glasses. He sported a neatly trimmed beard. His body was muscular, slender, strong, sculpted through endless hours at the gym. And of course, his hair was different. He had poured himself into the vessel called darkness and become the night.
The Billy Joe of today could afford to blow a hundred grand plus on a custom-made Hummer. This Billy Joe, he thought, had luxuries that five million from a federal bank heist allowed him. Stupidly, he and Crystal had pulled that job during the day and things had gone wrong. She had taken the fall and he had escaped.
But he wouldn’t think about her right now. Instead, he would become water and pour himself into the nearest vessel and assume the shape of that vessel.
The ferry began to slow as it neared the island. From the air or on a map, Tango Key looked like a misshapen cat’s head, with the right ear a wilderness preserve that spilled down into the cat’s cheek and across a part of its forehead. The town of Pirate’s Cove was located between the cat’s eyes and everything else above the eyes and into the cat’s left ear was occupied by homes and small businesses. The island’s north half was hilly, filled with fields, old farms, citrus groves. The highest point—1 10 feet, to be exact—was also in the north. The entire island was a geological oddity, an anomaly amid a curving string of flat islands that jutted out into the vastness of the ocean with impunity. Hit me, these little islands seem to shout. C ‘mon, I dare you. Tango Key was the only place in the Keys and the lower half of the Florida peninsula with hills.
The ferry would bring him in just below the cat’s mouth, where the land curved inward, forming a natural marina for the ferries and other boats that docked here. Well below the mouth, where the land was as flat as a postage stamp, lay the town of Tango, home to government offices, attorneys, doctors, the usual white-collar crowd, and the county jail. Dozens of small, family-owned businesses occupied the maze of narrow, shaded streets, some of them still paved with cobblestones that dated back to the 1700s.
Franklin shrugged his pack onto his back. He had plenty of cash in it. In addition to the cash on his wilderness property, he also had more cash in the Bahamas and in a Swiss bank. He’d been busy, efficient, thorough.
Down he went to the first deck, into his Hummer. How he loved the solidness of this vehicle, the smell of new, black leather, the way his hands fit over the steering wheel. A sexual feeling. That was what the Hummer did to him.
In addition to the brush grille guard at the front, both the front and the back were reinforced with steel plates. At the touch of a few keys on the computer under the dash, the Hummer could become nearly as impenetrable as a tank. The rear storage carried explosives that could be ignited by punching a three-digit code into the computer. The vehicle’s design was impeccable. Too bad that he had to sacrifice the Hummer to spring Crystal.
As he drove off the ferry; he felt a bit edgy, nervous, the inside of his mouth dry and tight. Perhaps this was a good sign. He couldn’t become complacent, careless. He brought a black cell phone out of the glove compartment and punched in a number. It rang at the other end, once, twice; then he disconnected, waited a few moments, and redialed. A single ring this time. Disconnect, call again, one ring, disconnect, two rings. There. Two, one; one, two: that was their signal. But would she remember it?
Yes, he believed she would.
Now it was past two AM. The graveyard shift at the jail would be in place and just one cop would be on duty, a bear of a woman who looked like a sumo wrestler.
He turned off Old Post Road and onto Lincoln Boulevard, which took him past the county government buildings, the library. The road twisted and a small fairground appeared, ringed by pines. Then, on his right, he saw the county jail that housed the female cons. An ugly building, low and squat, not well lit, with a ten-foot wire mesh fence crowned with nasty rolls of barbed wire. The front doors weren’t behind any fence, though, and that was where he would enter. Two cruisers were parked along the front of the building, both empty.
Top of the morning to you, ladies, he thought, and smiled to himself.
Franklin continued to the end of the street, turned, and reached under the Hummer’s seat for his weapon of choice, a newer version of the pump-action shotgun Arnold had used in the Terminator movies. He set it across his thighs, made a U-turn in the middle of the empty street, and started back toward Lincoln Boulevard. As he came into the turn, he picked up speed, the Hummer’s powerful V-8 growling. Then he floored the accelerator and the Hummer leaped forward, raced over the sidewalk, tore up grass and flower beds, and barreled toward the jail’s double glass doors.
Electronic doors. Two sets, glass. Not a problem. He pressed a button on the dashboard and the armored panels for the windows moved into place—rear window, side windows, and now the windshield itself, with just a strip of glass left clear along the width of it so he could see. Metal panels descended halfway over the tires, protecting them from bullets, flying glass. A thick metal mesh now covered the brushed grille guard and protected the headlights.
Seconds later, the Hummer crashed through the two sets of doors. Glass exploded, the alarms shrieked, and the sumo wrestler whipped around, her plump face vivid, eyes squinted against the brilliant glare of the headlights. She leaped out of the way with surprising swiftness, then spun and aimed a .30-06 at the Hummer.
Franklin swerved right. The Hummer struck her before she got off a shot. Her massive body seemed to burst like a balloon, spewing blood and bones, and he kept on going, the Hummer’s engine roaring as it slammed into the wall.
It broke apart as though it were no more substantial than balsa wood. Bits of concrete rained down on the Hummer’s roof and pinged against its armor. A cloud of dust drifted like smoke through the brilliant beams of the headlights. The ceiling sprinklers came on, the alarms kept shrieking. As the water from the sprinklers dampened the dust, he suddenly saw Crystal in the next cell, gripping the bars, her eyes startled, as huge as UFOs. Beside her stood a tall, black woman, her wild hair seeming to glisten in the brightness of the headlights, her long arms thrown up as if to fend off the Hummer. An Amazon warrior queen.
He flashed the headlights, the Amazon grabbed Crystal’s arm and jerked her out of the way. He threw the Hummer into reverse, then forward, and jammed his foot against the gas pedal. The Hummer lunged with the hunger of a predatory beast and burst into the next cell. The impact jolted him to the roots of his teeth. But he was in and Crystal ran toward the Hummer, her slim legs carrying her as fast as they would move.
He hurled open the passenger door and Crystal bolted inside—and the Amazon shot in right behind her. “There’s only room for two!” he shouted and swung the weapon up.
Crystal slammed her fist against the barrel, shoving it down. “She’s my friend,” she bellowed over the shriek of the alarms.
“Fuck it.” He slammed the Hummer into reverse and tore back through the holes in the wall. “Guns under the seat. Grab them and get in the back. Can you shoot a gun, Amazon?”
“Not with armor on the windows,” she shouted.
Very funny. A comedian. He swung the massive vehicle around and aimed it at the door, cops pouring through it. Move, now, fast, mow the fuckers down.
He gunned the engine and tore toward them, one hand clutching the steering wheel, the other pressing buttons on the dash that lowered the glass in the side and rear windows and opened gun holes in the armor. Some of the cops leaped out of the way, others weren’t fast enough, and the body of one slammed into the armor over the windshield, his cheek smashed up against the slit of glass right in front of Franklin.
As the Hummer raced through the ruined doors and spun onto Lincoln Boulevard, he pressed another button and a sunroof opened up. Bits and chunks of concrete and wood and dust rained into the car. He shouted at the women to get the body off the windshield. The Amazon popped up through the sunroof like some giant jack-in-the-box, and peeled the cop off the armor.
As the Hummer roared up Lincoln, the Amazon and Crystal used the sunroof as a shooting perch. “Five in pursuit!” the Amazon shouted, and she and Crystal opened fire simultaneously.
One cruiser spun out of control. Another crashed into a tree. A third slammed into a parked car and both exploded. Franklin grinned and headed for Vine, a road so narrow that when he swung the Hummer around so it formed a ninety-degree angle to the road, it blocked it completely.
“Out,” he shouted. “Out! Meet me in the woods.”
He punched in the three-digit code, slung his pack over his shoulder, and clambered out of the Hummer with the economical swiftness of a hummingbird. The explosives had a thirty-second delay, long enough for them to take cover.
He sprinted for the woods, the squeal of sirens so close now that they echoed eerily through the darkness. Then he plunged into the trees where Crystal and the Amazon waited for him, and they raced deeper into the woods. A heartbeat later the Hummer blew.
It sounded like Armageddon. They instinctively threw themselves to the ground, rolled. A tremendous fireball shot into the sky, spewing volcanic light and debris. The air smelled scorched. A second explosion rocked the darkness and they leaped up and ran hard and fast through the trees, stumbling over protruding roots, the night springing alive now with other sirens, other shrieks, a third explosion.
At the edge of the wooded area, they paused, he and Crystal gasping like fish out of water, while the Amazon had barely broken a sweat. “What the hell was in that Hummer of yours, boy?” the Amazon asked. “All of Vietnam?”
That and then some. There wouldn’t be enough left of the Hummer for a single fingerprint.
“Across the alley,” he hissed. “To that four-story building. The van’s on the second level.”
The Amazon darted out ahead of them, her long legs eating up the distance between the woods and the parking garage. Franklin grabbed Crystal’s hand and felt the suddenness of it, how he instantly felt whole again. They raced after the Amazon, across the alley, their shoes slapping the old cobblestones, and ducked into the shadows on the other side. This garage didn’t have an attendant. You just bought a sticker for a week or a month or whatever time frame suited you, slapped it on the inside of your windshield, and it was read like a bar code on a grocery store product as you entered and left the garage. His sticker—-like the van—was registered to Jerome Carver, a nowhere man who didn’t exist.
Into the garage, penlight on, up the stairs, fast, faster. Below, more sirens. Something had caught fire out there on Vine Street—trees or bushes, someone’s yard, loose garbage, he wasn’t sure. But he could smell it, a stench that mixed with the odor of gasoline, burning rubber, ruin.
They reached the second level of the garage. He ran over to the black van, unlocked the back of it, and they scrambled inside. The backseats were gone, but there were two bunk bed platforms fitted out with sleeping bags, blankets, pillows. A built-in cooler occupied the other wall and, next to it, camping gear and a couple of duffel bags. He pushed the green one toward Crystal. “Become someone else, babe.” He looked at the Amazon. A fine sheen of sweat covered her face. Her eyes, as black as bitter chocolate, revealed nothing. “You six feet or so?”
“I didn’t plan for a third person, but there should be something in this bag that fits you.” He shoved the navy blue duffel toward her. “When you’re done, crawl into the bunks, cover yourselves.”
He moved quickly to the front of the van, slid his weapon under the seat, and went through a routine he had rehearsed so many times he could do it in his sleep if he had to. Glove compartment: out came the electric razor, a pillowcase. He spread the pillowcase across his thighs, set the razor on the dashboard, reached under the passenger seat. Baseball cap, clean shirt. He folded his ponytail, hiding it under the cap, put on the shirt, brought out the glasses tucked in the pocket, slipped them on.
From between the seats, he brought out a bag of toys: Legos, stuffed animals, alphabet blocks, a couple of Dr. Seuss books—and dumped them in the passenger seat. He ran the razor over his face, shaving off his beard as he backed out of the space and started down the ramp. The hair fell onto the pillowcase and when he was finished, he would fold it up and stick it under the seat.
Franklin turned right out of the garage, away from the fire, the sirens, the stink, and headed west through downtown. Keep to the speed limit. You are water. You have been poured into a vessel called camper and family man.
He rubbed his hand over his face, feeling the unfamiliar smoothness. He folded the pillowcase and dropped it between the seats. The razor went back into the glove compartment. We’re going to make it.
And then, up ahead, he saw two police cruisers, lights spinning. “Shit. They’re cops up here. Get in the bunks. Fast.” “We’re in,” Crystal said.
CD player, a little music. I am water. I am a camper.
As he approached the cruisers, one of the cops stepped out into the road and motioned with a flashlight for him to pull over. A pulse hammered at his temple. The sticker, Jesus, the sticker is still on the windshield.
He started to peel it off, but was afraid to make any sudden movements. He pulled to the curb, stopped. “Don’t move,” he said under his breath.
The cop swaggered over to the van. “License and registration, sir,” he said, and shone the flashlight into Franklin’s face.
He squinted and handed the requested items to the cop, who examined them in the beam of his flashlight, shone the light on the toys and stuffed animals in the seat, then leaned a bit too far into the window and shone the light in the back. “And you’re headed where, Mr. Carver?”
“I was trying to get back to the campground and apparently took a wrong turn. My son developed a fever and I had to find some children’s Tylenol.”
“Just a minute, please.”
The cop walked back to the cruiser with Franklin’s phony ID. He would run it and find that Jerome Carver was a safe driver who lived in Titusville, Florida, and worked at Cape Canaveral as an engineer. Married, one child, no arrests. An ordinary citizen.
Unless something goes wrong.
Franklin waited. Beads of perspiration erupted on his forehead, his palms. How fast could he pull the weapon out from under the seat? Not fast enough. “Ladies, keep the guns close. If I say shoot, start shooting.”
Minutes ticked by. He heard more sirens, could see the glow of the flames in the side mirror. The inside of his mouth had gone bone dry.
Now the cop started toward the van. I am water. I am a camper.
“Here you go, Mr. Carver,” the cop said, and handed him the ID. “You need to go east four blocks, turn onto the Old Post Road, and head north to the preserve. Stay clear of Vine.”
“Will do. Thanks very much.”
The cop stepped back, Franklin turned the key, and pulled out onto the road, his hands shaking.