Little Torch Key Excerpt
“Christ, it’s him.” Brody’s breath reeked of Beam. “We need to get out of here.”
“Keep it down.” The morning sun blazing, Vaughn Ellis moved slowly through the growing crowd along the outside of the police tape anchored to the swaying Keys’ casuarina trees, a yellow ribbon surrounding death. He bit the inside of his cheek hard trying to cut the shrill note locked in his head. Some days he could pretend the note wasn’t there. Most days he couldn’t.
Brody hesitated, then followed.
Sprawled in a soaked tent of a Cuban Guayabera twenty-five yards down the rocky western Big Pine Key embankment lay the heavy man’s bloated corpse. The stiff legs were splayed, the outgoing tide receding from his hips to his swelled ankles and bare feet and then the water crept back again. The head was tilted away from the onlookers as if the corpse was gazing westward at Little Torch Key a mile across the Pine Channel. The already substantial stomach was visibly distended, like a pillow stuffed under the big shirt.
“This ain’t good,” Brody hissed. “I thought he was all talk.”
“Even cheap talk can get you killed.”
“What the hell went down last night after he was tossed from the Skull?”
“Nothing good, apparently,” Ellis replied. “He and his skinny buddy made a hell of a scene. Plenty of people in the bar saw the two of them shouting at us.”
“All over a couple grand.”
“And how many of them saw you flash metal?”
Brody glared at Ellis. The sunshine highlighted the gray roots of his bottle-black hair. “I probably saved your ass.”
“I can take care of myself,” Ellis replied.
“Maybe. But nothing good comes from chasing a body.”
“Lower your voice.” Ellis surveyed the crowd surrounding them. Rubber-necking vacationers reeking of SPF-50 pointed phones at the action below, to be uploaded to YouTube real-time.
Brody leaned in. “Seemed like an easy mark: brash, tipsy, rich.”
“Maybe too easy.”
“Hell you saying? You think we were set up?”
“Where’s the skinny one?” Ellis ignored the question. The heavy man’s partner was bald and pink like a peach. Probably soft like one too, Ellis thought.
“MIA. Maybe he was dumped too.”
“Maybe he did it.”
“It don’t matter.” Wiping sweat from his mouth, Ellis looked west across the channel to the Skull and Bones Whiskey Bar, a dive bar on Little Torch. It had a shorting neon sign out front and a new roof the owner was still waiting on a FEMA check for. Last night, at the beer-stained poker table in the back corner of the bar, the heavy man’s cockiness, spray tan, and slicked hair had reminded Ellis of the Wall Street pricks he’d bump into on New York sidewalks, what felt like a life away.
This morning, his corpse baked in the sun.
“A shouting match over a couple grand don’t mean we then dumped him out at sea,” Brody said.
“One plus one.” Ellis paused as a newswoman and her cameraman slid past them for a better shot. Sweat patches covered the cameraman’s T-shirt like camouflage. “Cops’ll be asking about it.”
“Then let’s get out of here.”
“You’re a big boy—you can do what you want.”
“Hell you looking for then?”
“I don’t know yet,” Ellis said.
The dead mark should be long tarped by now, Ellis thought, but remained uncovered. Dry sand stuck to the corpse’s skin from the stiff body being turned or shifted. Monroe County police were still half-assed cordoning off the scene. The crowd was probably trampling evidence. A pudgy officer with a mop of blond hair struggled with a tarp folding back on him in the wind. Media vans parked on the bridge, and reporters were hastily setting up live shots, vultures to roadkill.
Ellis felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He thought of her, and his two young boys in New York. It had been two months since he held them. In summer, his boys’ hair always smelled faintly of grass. He wanted to breathe that in. He knew there were no words to justify to Abby his abrupt abandonment of his family. That he never could find the words to explain the darkness festering in him since that terrible event in New York. He’d tried explaining the darkness to her dozens of times, but too often his words turned to shouting and blame. He knew his boys had grown scared of that man. He never wanted that as a father. Who does? He holed up into himself until one day two months back his chest felt like it was bursting, and he hastily packed a bag and took a Greyhound southbound. Almost immediately, he knew he’d made the wrong decision, and at each stop, he told himself to get off the bus and take the next one north. But he didn’t get off the bus. He didn’t understand it. The shrill note intensified. He got off at the southernmost stop.
He wanted to tell Patrick and Andrew he loved them. To say he was sorry. That he understood if they never forgave him. To tuck them into bed at night. He wanted to breathe in their smell.
Ellis pulled the phone, but the message wasn’t from his wife. It never was, not anymore. The screen showed a message from the anonymous messenger app:
Uppercrust: Decisions Have Consequences
Ellis’s chest tightened. He surveyed the crowd, as if the anonymous sender would be standing nearby. Dozens of people around him held phones. Ellis immediately felt foolish. Was the corpse a consequence? Of what? And why was Ellis involved? He knew the heavy man’s death and the message were linked. Soon after getting off that Greyhound in Little Torch, Ellis started receiving similar messages from this anonymous messenger app. Someone wanted him out of the Southern Straits. Why? And why not just come directly for Ellis?
He stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
“Ellis, you with me? Christ, are you humming?”
Ellis opened his eyes to the blistering Keys sun. He ran his dark hand along the police tape. His wedding band matted by the bright yellow.
“How much you have to drink last night?”
“Not enough.” Ellis looked from the body north along the rocky shore. About a hundred yards up a series of canals ran inland, east to west. The rich had built stilted ocean-view homes there—dock access to the Gulf of Mexico to the north, the Atlantic to the south. Many of these posh homes still resembled lumberyards. But some of the weekend-frequenters with balls, or just plenty of cash, had returned to rebuild. And then there are the rest of us, Ellis thought, in the shadow of paradise. There were the lifers like Brody, but then like Ellis, some existed here in a purgatory, the recently-arrived, the out-of-luck, as if washed up on shore like garbage.
“You think one of the rich assholes saw something?” Brody pulled his glasses and wiped sweat from his forehead with his faded Guy Harvey T-shirt sleeve.
“Did he come back to the Skull last night?”
Ellis nodded at the corpse.
“I don’t know.”
“Did he come back?”
“Jesus, Ellis. Quit interrogating me. I didn’t see him again, but I wasn’t there for long.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Fuck you too.”
“That answer’s as good as mine. I was alone at the cottage,” Ellis said. “And no one can vouch for it.”
Ellis turned as two teenagers squeezed next to him along the police tape. They leaned into each other and snapped a selfie, the body in the background.
“Christ,” Ellis muttered.
Brody leaned in, “Not a lot of time for this all to happen. Popped, dumped, washed up.”
“What if he was dumped on shore?”
“Right down there?”
“To make it look like he was dumped at sea. Not much discoloration to him, if he was submerged in salt water five, six hours.”
Brody shook his head. “Sudden expert on crime scenes?”
Ellis ignored him, but Brody wouldn’t let up. “You learn that up north doing what’d you tell me? Ripping off wealthy widows with some stock scheme?” He saw through Ellis’s story. Ellis knew that, but he didn’t say anything. Nobody down here ever says anything.
“What about Dalt? He got any ideas?”
Terry Dalton is the proprietor of the Skull and Bones Whiskey Bar. Brody rents a room upstairs in the bar, a room Ellis wouldn’t mind getting his hands on for its proximity to his regular bar stool.
“Didn’t see him this morning.”
“Codger’s got his ear to the ground,” Ellis said.
“Don’t he? But that don’t mean he’ll open his mouth about anything.”
In this business, nobody knows anything, even if they do. Suited Ellis fine most of the time.
“You talk to anyone about this?” Brody said.
Ellis shook his head.
“Let’s keep it that way.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Ellis said. “If you go down, I go down.”
Ellis had met Brody at the Skull about a week after arriving. Brody had hustled Ellis for two hundred in pool, then offered to buy Ellis a beer, with Ellis’s money. Said Ellis looked like shit. He wasn’t wrong. A few beers later, Ellis told Brody the story he’d eventually tell the other hustlers at the bar: that Ellis had been running pump-and-dump stock scams out of an abandoned office in Astoria, Queens, pulling quick money working phones. Said the scheme worked until it didn’t, and Ellis bolted south to disappear.
Brody told Ellis about the charter fishing company he ran out of the three-slip marina behind the Skull. His brother, some big shot hedge fund manager, had staked Brody with a boat, a sterling 40-foot Proline aptly named Brother’s Love. But, Brody told Ellis that fishing charters—licensed and not—operate every ten feet in the Southern Straits, so business hadn’t exactly taken off. Brody started running tables, pulling two bit cons on tourists and weekend-frequenters with fat wallets.
Brody and Ellis started pulling cons together soon after at the Skull. Pool hustles, card games. Ellis had done some of that on the side in Annapolis. Anything to make a buck and get through another day. He and Brody won more than they lost and had been called out a few times, even gotten into scrapes that tumbled into the Skull parking lot. But nothing beyond that. Nothing like this.
“Jesus,” Ellis muttered when the examiners tilted the body, exposing the clear signature of a bullet hole just above the right eye.
“Don’t goddamn say it,” Brody hissed. “Don’t even goddamn think it.”
Ellis shook his head. Enough people in the Skull saw Brody flash the Beretta last night before the heavy man and skinny man were tossed from the bar.
“Hole’s too big to come from that pop gun of yours,” Ellis said.
“Someone wanted to keep him quiet,” Brody whispered.
“Or to make a point,” Brody added.
“A message? The skinny guy was pretty fidgety.”
“They probably owed someone serious cash.”
“Judging by the stiff’s roll last night, money wasn’t the issue,” Ellis said, watching the body. “Guessing he knew something important enough that he needed to get popped. That’s what I’d chase—”
“I’m not chasing shit. You’re not either,” Brody hissed. “Less you want to get popped too.”
Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, Ellis thought, but didn’t say.
The medical examiner bent over the victim’s head, picking lightly at the bullet entrance wound with tweezers. Probably studying the approach of impact on the skull, Ellis thought—clean or angled. Was the bullet lodged inside or had it discharged out the back? But it was clear the examiner was not following any known procedure. Detailed, invasive examinations were left for the lab, but he was operating under Key’s procedure. Using the tweezers, the examiner dropped something into a small plastic bag and requested another.
The pudgy cop with the blond mop of hair bent to a heavy shackle and chain attached to the victim’s left ankle. The cop made an indiscernible comment, and another officer, standing, smiled, catching the eye of a grey-haired detective wearing a scowl.
“They entered the Skull around 11, spent about a half hour at the bar doing shots, then approached the poker table at 11:30,” Ellis said quietly.
“Other than Dalt at the bar, did they talk to anyone in that thirty minutes?”
“What about the Latina?”
“You did have a lot to drink then,” Brody said. “Short hair, sitting at the bar.”
Ellis nodded, the night coming back. “Nose ring.”
“The skinny man had a few words with her while the fat one did most of the drinking. Later at the table the skinny man seemed to be watching her.”
“Think she was with them?”
Brody shrugged. “She was at the bar before they showed up.”
“Had her eyes on the poker table,” Ellis added. “Seen her in the Skull before?”
“Here and there.”
“Ever talk to her?”
Brody shook his head. “Lachlan has.”
“Who doesn’t he try to bullshit?” Lachlan was a pudgy Keys-lifer and bar regular who sold crap insurance policies to retirees in the Keys.
A Latino television reporter squeezed next to Ellis and Brody along the tape, blotting away the glow of perspiration from his face. He asked Ellis to move for his live shot, but Ellis acted like he didn’t hear him.
“The heavy man referenced his boat at the poker table. Hatteras. 48 foot,” Ellis said, his eyes on the body.
Ellis pointed through the crowd across the channel. Only two boats occupied the three slips behind the Skull: Brody’s Proline and a piece of shit a bar regular named Jack lived on.
“Where’s the boat now? Was someone waiting on it to pop them? Is it out at sea?”
Decisions have consequences….
“None of this matters,” Brody said.
Ellis watched him.
“One day all of us end up like him. You, me, all of us.”
One corner of Brody’s mouth rose. “Life don’t end pretty for guys like us, like him, even in paradise.”
Ellis thought of the word ‘paradise’. The shrill note lingered in his head.
The body was bagged and lifted onto a stretcher. Ellis looked to the cluster of uniforms—the other side of the thin blue line. He was just another onlooker to them.
“The name Uppercrust mean anything to you?”
“Upper-what?” Brody said.
“Uppercrust.” Ellis kept his eyes on the paramedics and officers struggling to scale the embankment. Ellis knew this Keys life was bound to garner enemies.
“Never mind,” Ellis said.
A police siren’s intermittent blaring hung over the growing crowd like a terrible cry. Onlookers pressed hot around Uppercrust, whispering to each other. Uppercrust watched Ellis stand next to the other man along the yellow tape looking to the puffed corpse down the embankment. Uniformed men huddled there, presenting the appearance of earnestness, Uppercrust thought, discussing the bullshit they discuss in order to appear important when a body was found washed up on a tourist island.
“Betcha this was a professional hit.” Uppercrust looked back to see a spray-tanned, muscular man-boy boasting to his female companion. His tight, collared shirt was meant to enhance his muscles up top, perched on bird legs. The woman held her smartphone up, recording the scene for her cracker family back home. Uppercrust looked away when she pivoted the camera past.
“Trust me,” the man continued, “this wasn’t a random act of violence. It was personal.” Why was it people felt the need to lie to themselves to feel safe? Uppercrust thought.
The corpse was lifted to a gurney as police combed the rocky embankment and mangroves below. No doubt a scrambled, blundering investigation would follow intended to calm the nerves of the tourists in the southern Straits of Florida. As Uppercrust watched the body being carried up the steep slope toward the Monroe County ambulance, an idea took shape.
Ellis and Brody walked in silence along US-1 back toward Brody’s rusted Tacoma, the morning muggy and growing more so. Traffic crawled with the eastbound lane closed down for service vehicles. Glancing at the ocean, Ellis thought it would be easy to marvel at the postcard views: gulls cawed over the series of whitecaps on the teal sea; a handful of fishing boats crossed the horizon, resembling children’s toys. But all these images weren’t true, Ellis knew. They existed, but they weren’t true. They weren’t the reality of this place—something Ellis figured soon after getting off that Greyhound. A darkness hung in the Keys that wasn’t found on any postcard, a darkness the tourists never recognized—they were too busy putting down Mai Tais and listening to bad steel drum music. It was the driving rainstorm that emerged every afternoon like clockwork, a heavy, combustible cloud weighing over this world.
Weighing within Ellis.
“You think anyone at the Skull is involved?”
Brody got in Ellis’s face. He has a few inches on Ellis’s six-flat. “Leave it, Ellis.” Brody used last names when his temper flared. “You ask the wrong guy about a dead body, and you end up like that asshole, a hole in the head. And if you go down, I go down. We’re linked here.”
Ellis repeated the question.
Brody stared him down, his bloodshot eyes popping against his deep tan. He finally backed down and leaned against the Tacoma’s grill. “The mark spent a chunk of time in the Skull last night and washes up a few hours later a mile away. You do the math.”
Turning, Ellis bumped into a sunburned, fifty-something man with fading hair hustling toward the crime scene. His female companion was of similar age and girth. Ellis apologized and stepped back. The couple wore matching bright pink T-shirts advertising Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West. His and hers. The fold lines were still there.
“Sir.” The woman spoke in a thick southern twang. Arkansas, maybe Tennessee. Her glasses had flip-up lenses. “Do you know what’s going on? All the po-lice and such?”
“Just another day in paradise,” Ellis said, catching Brody’s smirk. The woman glanced the man, and the two double-timed it toward the crowd.
Before Ellis got in the truck, he looked back out to the sea beyond. It was an odd juxtaposition: a fresh corpse framed by peaceful tropical waters, a relentless morning sun, and, across the way in Little Torch, the Skull and Bones Whiskey Bar. The dive bar’s black and white Jolly Roger flag snapped against a postcard blue sky.
“How much you lift?” Brody watched Ellis from the driver’s seat.
Ellis held up the tourist’s battered wallet and pulled a grand total of twenty-three dollars. Pocketed the cash and tossed the leather over the guardrail.
“You ready to make money tonight?”
Ellis glanced the flashing police lights. “Let’s lay low for a couple days.”
“You crazy? Skull’s gonna be hopping with this green crowd spilling in.”
Ellis played the threat over in his head. Decisions have consequences. The heavy mark was probably dead by the time Uppercrust had sent the first message to Ellis early this morning. Ellis bit his cheek hard.
“Jesus, you with me?” Brody slapped the side of the cab. “Easy. We do two brothers and a stranger. Use the cash from last night for bank.”
Ellis nodded, watching the crowd.
Brody fired up the truck’s engine. “I’ll tip Dalt about it this afternoon.”
“How about Daisy this time?”
Brody grinned. “You know how pasty middle-America tourists love interracial couples.”
Light seeped through the cracked door. Uppercrust slapped it open. Melissa turned abruptly from the desk in the cramped space, her pale skin glistening with sweat.
“Jesus, uh, what’s up? Didn’t know where you been or when you’d be back, figured you wouldn’t care.” The Skull’s waitress talked rapidly, the staccato ramblings of guilt. “Bueno, just needed a little. Sabes que estoy bien. You know I’m good for it, you know I’m good.” Her blue eyes refused to look at Uppercrust. She cut across the space and tried to slide past Uppercrust, but the figure grabbed her scrawny arm.
“Where you been anyway?” she said.
She was all bones, but she fought hard as Uppercrust patted her down roughly.
“I got money, got it here,” she stammered. “Was gonna leave it, you know I’m good for it, always good for it.” Tugging her arm away, she dug in her jeans pocket. She pulled out a few crumpled ones and fives and tossed them at the figure.
“Perra!” she hissed.
Uppercrust laughed as she spun away and stumbled out the door.
Uppercrust let her go. She had nothing anyway. Uppercrust knew that when Melissa showed up, she was looking to score. She’d find someone else on Little Torch or Big Pine to hook her up. Snort enough of it herself and sell the rest to junkies squatting in homes boarded up after the hurricane.
She wasn’t Uppercrust’s priority anyway. Vaughn Ellis was. Uppercrust’s plans changed radically last night, but no matter—everything had been taken care of.
No loose ends.
Uppercrust closed and locked the door, crossed the small space, and sat at the laptop. Pushed aside the Chinese takeout containers and checked the onion router, ensuring online anonymity. Only idiots pinged cell towers with their own phones, alerting authorities to their every move like a bank robber wearing a blinking GPS tracker. Uppercrust tapped the touchpad. Instead of the login screen, an active desktop came alive. A folder containing dozens of files was open. One of the files, a Word document, had been opened, the document scrolled halfway through. Uppercrust slapped the laptop shut, stood and crossed the space quickly, but then stopped.
Emotional, impulsive decisions were how stupid people ended up dead.
Uppercrust returned to the laptop and pulled a burner smartphone. Tapped the anonymous messenger app. The screen showed a series of untraceable usernames—no contact information associated with them, and most of the users’ IPs were blurred, leading through a maze to dead ends. Pedophiles and predators preyed undetected here, but Uppercrust didn’t care about that.
Uppercrust found Vaughn Ellis’ digital name, Matador, and typed the short message—one of a series of increasing threats. Ellis had quickly and confidently infiltrated the Keys’ grifter scene: drugs, guns, and information sold for a price. But Uppercrust knew Ellis’ story was bullshit. And every decision had consequences, sometimes stark ones.
Uppercrust tapped Send.