“What are you working on now?” she asked, her tone relaxed, peaceful. “A new case?”
“I told you, I’m retired. I’m out of that game. For good this time.”
Pete Fernandez squirmed on the long, leather couch as he faced his therapist, Allie Kaplan. Her posture was confident, present. Her demeanor was polished but casual as she sat across from Pete. Kaplan was in her mid-forties, with long black hair. She was well built with smooth features. She looked comfortable and relaxed, two things Pete hadn’t experienced in what felt like centuries.
His body was in shambles. His left shin ached if the temperature dipped below seventy degrees—the spot where mafia captain Vincent Salerno had slammed his heel, before he left Pete for dead. Pete’s jaw clicked if he yawned or laughed too hard—residual damage from too many punches to the chin. The pale white skin of his of his chest looked like it had been splattered with dark purple paint, a cornucopia of bruises and cuts healing at different speeds. That was the superficial stuff. Some nights, before sleep, Pete would feel the jolt—the first push from the first shot that entered his body. His back would tighten and his legs would spasm, as if bracing for another. Another shot to put him down for good.Pete knew he was lucky to be alive. To have come back to life.
Pete knew he was lucky to be alive. To have come back to life. For a minute or two, he’d been gone—the bullet holes in his chest had done him in, the bruises and cuts and broken bones combined with blood loss to write the final lines in Pete’s story. But somehow, that wasn’t enough. An FBI agent named Dave Sternbergh got to him. He’d been sitting in his unmarked car, waiting for his partner, Amanda Chopp, to return. He’d seen a suspicious figure follow Amanda into Pete’s Spring Valley, New York office. Sternbergh pursued slowly. Faster, once he heard the gunshots. Even faster when he saw his partner of seven years dead on the floor and Pete Fernandez bleeding out a few feet away.
It’d been close. Pete would never fully recover. Months of physical therapy helped fix the external problems, fix them enough so he could live. But the flies buzzing around in his head were another matter. The white noise that coated every thought, every action. That’s why he was here, in a small office buried in a nondescript building off Coral Way, sharing his deepest-darkest with a therapist who didn’t really seem to buy Pete’s stump speech: that he was fine. He was happy to be alive. He was retired. He was doing great.
Because it wasn’t true.
“You keep saying that,” she said. “But what does that mean?”
“It means, well, I’m out of the game,” Pete said.
“Are you? You’ve done things that say you are out of the game,” she said, a humorless, polite smile on her face. “But then you’ve done other things that say the opposite, I think.”
“Like what?” Pete asked. “I mean, I’m barely a private investigator anymore—I don’t even carry my gun. So what, then?”
“The self-defense training, for one.”
“I think my… my life experience has shown me it’d be good to know how to defend myself.”
“I think that’s valid.”
“I was dead, clinically dead,” Pete said, running a hand through his hair. “I survived. I had to figure out how to … how to never be in that situation again. How to never find myself just relying on pure luck and my wits to survive.”
“How do you feel now?”
“I feel stronger,” Pete said. “I’m not scared. The aikido and gym time have been a good release, I guess. A good way to get my mind off of things.”
“But wouldn’t you think—and I’m just raising the question—that training in this way suggests you’re … preparing for something?”
“No, not at all,” Pete said. “I’m just working at the bookstore, and that gets me enough to live. It’s not the most exciting thing, but—”
“But it’s enough?” she asked. “Would you say that?”
“Yes,” Pete said. “It’s peaceful. I’ve survived enough. I saw … I was—”
“When you got shot?” she asked. “What did you see?”
“I saw a blackness,” Pete said. “A void. An endless nothing …. Then I was back, like I’d been jarred awake from a deep, dark dream that was spreading out in all directions, like some kind of fast-moving oil spill. Then I was awake, and there were faces around me and I was … It hurt so much. I was hurting everywhere, like I’d never felt—” “
But you’ve made so much progress,” she said, leaning forward. “I mean, look at you. I wouldn’t be able to tell—”
Pete winced. He knew she was lying. He had a thick beard now, to hide the scrapes and bruising on his face as best he could. If he walked too fast, he limped slightly. He had trouble lifting his arms above his head. And he would never be able to try out for the Dolphins. But, yes. He was alive. He had to remind himself of that.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Pete said. “I’m grateful to be alive.”
“It’s okay if you’re not.”
Pete looked up at Allie. Her expression was blank, waiting.
“It’s okay to resent being alive, is what I’m saying. Maybe part of you wanted to die that day.”
Pete shook his head. “That’s insane.”
“Is it?” she said. “Your life—at least the last five years—has involved people gunning for you, friends dying, extreme physical and mental trauma, and lots of tragedy and infamy. You’ve done a lot of good, but I imagine that was as exhausting as life can get, right? To what end? You’re working at a bookstore, your body is a mess, you’re single, and you have no real family or friends to speak of.”
“Wow, doc,” Pete said, a dry laugh escaping his mouth. “And here I thought therapy was supposed to make me feel better.”
“It is, eventually. But first, we need to look at things as they are, not just pretend it’s great. And I think you’re doing the latter. Pretending. Resigning yourself. But I think—and look, you can tell me to go to hell if you want—I think you must have learned something over the last few years, right? Realized you were good at some part of what was going on?”
“So?” Pete asked. “That little flicker of hope should keep me on the same track?”
“No,” Allie said. “But it’s something. It’s more than just being stuck in a self-inflicted purgatory. You seemed to—on some level—like what you were doing. But for whatever reason, you chose not to fully embrace it. You just bumbled through it, barely surviving. It had consequences. But now it feels like you’re preparing for something, while also denying that anything’s coming.”
Pete crossed his arms and looked away, not responding.
Allie pressed on. “Pete, you’re a good man, a good person. I know that much from just sitting here and talking to you every week for the last few months. You’ve made mistakes. Who hasn’t? Maybe the answer to the pain, the plan moving forward, isn’t to shelter yourself from the stuff that’s gone wrong, but to push forward with a clearer idea of what you want. Does that make sense? You’re acting out of fear—and that’s understandable. You almost died. But maybe the answer is to embrace who you are, to get better at that, rather than run from it, you know?”
Pete stood up abruptly.
“I think I have to go,” he said.
“Pete, listen,” Allie said.
“Can you just bill my card?”
“Pete,” she said, grabbing his arm—the contact feeling electric and out of place, like a priest reaching across the confessional. “I know you’re processing a lot. It’s fine if you walk out. Just know I’m around if you need anything, okay? I’m here.”
Pete nodded and moved toward the door, not waiting for Kaplan to continue, his footsteps growing fainter on the faded linoleum floor.
Pete mouthed a silent prayer as he stepped into the restaurant’s foyer. Le Chic, a cozy eatery in the trendy Wynwood area, specialized in gussied-up comfort food. He could already feel the vibrations from the music blasting inside—Black Eyed Peas’ obnoxious earworm, “Let’s Get It Started”—as he reached for the door.
Just make an appearance.
The place was packed, the space felt hot and electric. The small dance floor spilled out into the restaurant’s main dining area, a wave of swerving and gyrating bodes. They’d cleared the tables for
the event, but the extra space was barely noticeable. The party felt chaotic, wild—as if it were building to some unknown crescendo, Pete thought. The restaurant was dimly lit, with most of the light coming from around the long, oak bar at the far end of the place and from the multiple TVs perched above the crowd playing the local news.
This might be easier than he’d anticipated. He might just be able to pop in, say hi, and slither out. Then he felt a tug at his arm. “Thought you were gonna ghost this thing.”
Pete turned around to see Robert Harras, ex-FBI spook with at least half a heart. They’d been through the fire together a few times. Pete considered him a friend. One of the few he still had.
“I told Kathy I’d be here,” Pete said with a weary smile. “Good to see you.”
“Good to see you, too,” the older man said. “You’re looking almost back to normal.”
Pete nodded. They both knew Pete was far from “back to normal”—whatever that meant. Less than a year ago, he was being pushed into a New York emergency room on a gurney, his life signs flat and his blood loss heavy, the victim of a gunshot to the chest from a rogue mobster named Vinnie Salerno. It’d capped off a flurry of events that had left Pete destroyed—literally and figuratively. He’d just returned to New York, his makeshift home at the time, to collect his life and head back to Miami, energized and reinvigorated and, most importantly, eager to carve out a new place for himself in his hometown, surrounded by friends like his investigative partner Kathy Bentley and Harras.
Instead, he died. For a few seconds, at least.
“How’s business?” Harras said, cutting through the silence between them. The DJ had taken a break, allowing the revelers to migrate toward the bar and reload their glasses. Pete scanned the crowd. He caught a glimpse of Kathy, near a makeshift stage. She was smiling, her face pink and gleaming from dancing and drinking. Behind her was a banner—CONGRATULATIONS MARCO AND KATHY!—written in blocky, neon letters.
“Bookstore is fine,” Pete said, not looking at Harras. “Quiet.”
“Nice change of pace, eh?” Harras said. “Enjoying retirement?”
Pete shrugged. He looked at his watch.
“Bored already? Can’t remember the last time I saw you. You’re not hiding out again, are you?”
You’re not isolating and drinking again, are you?
You’re not avoiding your friends, are you?
That’s what Harras meant, whether he knew it or not. Pete was an alcoholic. Always would be. But at the moment, for today, he was sober. Had been for a few years now. It had not been an easy road, and it was the kind of thing that required constant upkeep—meetings, prayer, and conversations with other alcoholics—just to make it through the day. But the upside was impossible to quantify. It meant Pete had a chance to live a life. That was something he hadn’t even fully realized until recently, as he felt his life slipping away.
“I’ve been busy,” Pete said, meeting his friend’s stare. Pete knew what he looked like—weary, sad, worn out.
You’ve lost weight.
Are you doing okay?
You should come out more.
What was it like?
Did you see a light?
He knew he’d touched death. That his life had ended, for a moment. Yet now, a year later—Pete could not recall a time he’d ever felt more alive. But it was coated with a sadness he’d had trouble even beginning to shake. There was a sense of dread and finality that he couldn’t figure out or remove. He shook his head with a slight jerk, as if to shrug off the feeling and touch the real world, the real things in front of him now. Like Harras. Like this party, and the reason he was here.
“I’m working a lot…. Trying to keep the bookstore going takes up most of my time. But I’m glad to see you. You’re right—it’s been too long.”
Harras started to respond, but Pete felt himself being pushed forward, an arm wrapping around his shoulder. “Well, look who decided to show their face?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Pete said, leaning into her, welcoming the embrace. She was glowing—her smile natural and warm, her flowing sundress almost radiant with its own light. Kathy’s movements seemed sludgy but content—she was working a good buzz, no doubt, Pete thought.
She pulled back, leaning toward the restaurant’s jammed dance floor, her hand tugging at Pete.
“Well, come on then,” she said, her voice rising to be heard over the DJ’s latest song—Taylor Swift’s “Gorgeous.” “You owe me at least one dance before you disappear without saying goodbye.”
He looked at Harras, who responded with a noncommittal smirk.
Pete let Kathy drag him into the crowd, bodies moving and sliding over each other, the temperature jumping up at least five degrees. The restaurant seemed to sway with each rhythmic change of the song, as Swift’s ode to a perfect, unattainable lover hit its chorus crescendo. They reached the center of the dance floor and Kathy leaned into him, her breath tinged with the smell of red wine and something minty, her cheek warm against his.
“Where have you been, Pete?”
“I’m here,” he said, his body close to hers, their posture stiff but electric, one hand on her lower back, his other hand gripping hers.
“You’re late.” The words poured out, like a pout, but Pete knew it was frustration. She wanted him to be happy about this. If he could be happy about one thing, it should be this.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I’m here. I know it was important for you.”
He knew the words were wrong when he finished the sentence, even if the sentiment was genuine. She pulled back, her face in front of his, her eyes clear and probing.
“It should be important for you to be here, period,” she said, her tone sharp, but not fully combative, perhaps lulled a bit by the drink and celebratory evening.
Still, a warning to tread carefully. Kathy was his partner when it came to his now-paused investigative work, when she wasn’t working full-time for a local culture site, The New Tropic. She was also his closest friend. But both of those relationships lived under a cloud of something else—a spark between them that was more than friendship and certainly more than professional. A spark that had brought them together in ways he was still trying to untangle. If you’d asked Pete almost a year ago what was most important to him, as he boarded a plane to New York to gather his belongings and return to Miami, he wouldn’t have hesitated. Kathy. She was it. His last, best hope at something. But after looking into a void he could have never imagined, he’d come out of the whole ordeal broken and wary. By the time he’d recovered and scraped some kind of life together, Kathy had moved on.
Moved on wasn’t exactly true. She’d been clear with Pete, even before he boarded that fateful flight, that their prospects were dim. She valued his friendship over any kind of romance—a road she’d been down already and found wanting. From the moment they’d wheeled him into Spring Valley General, she’d been there. Waiting for him to wake up. Holding his hand through physical therapy, cheering him on. Pete vowed this would be the last time. He was done with danger. Done with drug gangs and explosions and murder. Kathy took him at his word. Helped him get situated with the bookstore and applauded his other efforts, too. They’d become closer than ever, Pete thought. But at the same time, she’d met Marco Lopez, a Miami real estate developer she’d interviewed for a piece on the burgeoning market as a freelance assignment for The New Tropic. Marco ended the interview with the offer of dinner. Kathy passed, but he persisted. Six months later, they were celebrating their engagement and Pete was just a guest who showed up late. Story of his life.
“You’re right,” Pete said, as they moved to the music, her cheek on his. “I’m happy for you. This is great.”
“That’s better,” she said. “Even if you don’t really mean it.”
She draped her arms over his shoulders as the song shifted from T-Swift to “Just One of the Guys” by Jenny Lewis. The song’s dreamy guitar intro wove around them as Lewis sang about friends getting on and girls staying young.
“Talk to me, Pete,” she said. “I never see you. You look good, if slightly under your fighting weight. But definitely better. How are you?” The music seemed to grow louder, enveloping him in a cloud of noise, adding a buffer between him and Kathy, even though she was close enough to kiss now. He could feel her breath on his face.
“I’m fine,” Pete said, the words coming out in a stammer, unrehearsed. He wasn’t fine, really. He wanted to scream. He’d debated whether to come here at all, whether he was really up for the torture of seeing Kathy celebrate being engaged to another man. But he’d shown up. Wasn’t that something his AA friend Jack often said? Most of life is about showing up.
So, here he was. Being a good friend, feeling his insides churn, and hoping for a quick, painless exit.
“May I have this dance?”
They both turned to see a slightly younger man, tan, his black hair finely gelled, in a sharp gray suit. His smile was wide, but stopped short of his eyes. Marco Lopez had seemed puzzled by Pete since they met. Not because Pete was particularly mysterious. Marco seemed mostly curious about Pete’s dynamic with his soon-to-be wife. He wanted to figure out what kept Pete and Kathy together— why they remained close after so much loss and violence. At least that was Pete’s take. He might just not like Pete, which would put him in pretty esteemed company. Still, Pete understood the etiquette, and even if he wasn’t fully on Team Marco, he was Kathy’s friend, and he’d respect the process.
“Of course,” Pete said, stepping back and motioning for Marco to join his fiancée. “It’s your night.”
“Pete,” Kathy said, as Marco led her deeper into the crowd of dancers, her face resting on Marco’s shoulder. “Don’t you leave before we get to talk, okay? I will kill you myself.”
Pete tapped the unlock button on the car key and heard the familiar beep as he approached his black Toyota Camry. He waited for the footsteps behind him to stop before he turned around to see Robert Harras.
“Leaving so soon?”
“I’m not much of a party guy,” Pete said. “Not anymore.”
Harras reached into his jacket and pulled out a can of Amstel Light, which he’d presumably swiped from the party. He popped it open and took a swig.
“If this bothers you, I can—”
Pete waved him off. “It’s fine.”
“Been hearing some weird rumbling.”
“Yeah, stuff simmering for a while,” Harras said, looking out into the sludgy-hot Miami night. “You really upset the apple cart with Los Enfermos and that cult.”
“We did that together,” Pete said. “You were part of it.”
“Don’t get all defensive yet. I’m not finished,” Harras said.
Los Enfermos, a Castro-fueled drug gang, had been presumed dead a few years back. But the remnants of the gun-happy gangsters had gone after Pete and Kathy a year ago, while the duo investigated the Miami cult known as La Iglesia de la Luz. Strange bedfellows and all that. It had seemingly ended with the gang’s leader, Lionel Oliva, dead, his head splayed on the road that connected Miami to Key West.
“Are Los Enfermos back?”
“No, not exactly,” Harras said. “But my contacts at the Bureau think people are trying to pick up those pieces—namely, the cocaine trade. Los Enfermos still exist, in some way, but they’re not big enough to make much noise. Yet. In the meantime, it’s looking like other people are stepping in and trying to make a go of running drugs through Miami.”
“New boss, same as the old boss,” Pete said. “What can I do to help?”
“Not sure yet. My info is spotty. I’m the definition of ‘out of the loop’ these days,” Harras said. “What else are you working on? Gimme something interesting to talk about, at least. I’ve been leaning against a wall, slowly going deaf in there. My deepest conversation was with the waiter, who is somehow a Seattle Mariners fan in Miami.”
Pete cracked a smile. Harras and Kathy were right. He hadn’t seen them much over the last few months. Once he’d healed enough to be released from the hospital, Kathy fell into her relationship with Marco, checking in with Pete by phone or email every week or so. Harras wasn’t much for phone chats, texts, or email, so Pete heard from him even less. After the events of the last year—the death of Jackie Cruz, the battles with the cult, and Pete’s near-death encounter—he couldn’t blame them for wanting to take a break.
“It’s been quiet. Calm, for once,” Pete said. “Can’t complain.”
The store was The Book Bin, a used bookstore on Bird Road that was now under Pete’s watch. Its previous owner, Dave Mendoza, had signed control over before disappearing a little less than a year ago, in the wake of the revelations that he and his family were part of the deadly cult that had tried to eliminate Pete and Kathy.
Pete found the work soothing, in stark contrast to the high-octane chaos of his previous exploits as a PI. It was easy to lose himself in the minutiae of the job—ordering and organizing books, dealing with his regular cast of customers, and managing his sole part-time employee, Isabel Levitz, a retired librarian who couldn’t retire her passion for books. She was quirky but well read, and had saved Pete’s ass many a time when a customer came in asking for books Pete had never heard of. It also made the hours sitting at the front desk a little less solitary. Financially, the store made just enough to stay open and to float Pete his rent and expenses, meaning he could turn down any occasional investigative jobs that cropped up. Fernandez Investigations lived on in name only, intentionally stuck in neutral. The days of car explosions and dead friends were over. Pete Fernandez, semi-retired never-was.
The bookstore and the life he’d built around it kept him afloat, but it was the AA meetings he tried to attend—and the fellowship surrounding the recovery program—that kept him alive.
The concept still seemed foreign to him, especially after the months of recovery, pain, and stretching to reach a modicum of normal. He’d found himself basking in the banality of things: a cup of coffee in the morning. Driving to work. A quiet meal.
“Nice to see you out of that hospital gown.”
“Tell me about it. But, hell, I was happy to be around to wear it.”
“I can imagine,” Harras said. “You cut it pretty close.”
“They ever get a line on Salerno? Or what his deal was?”
“Chopp’s partner, Sternbergh, the guy who was waiting in the car—”
“The guy that rushed in when he heard the shots?”
“Yeah, saved my life,” Pete said. “He said they lost Salerno after that. Heard a few things, a sighting in Baltimore, but nothing else. Guy’s in the wind.”
Harras’s stare became distant as he mulled the info over. After a moment, he shifted gears.
“Heard anything from Dave?”
Pete shook his head. Pete hadn’t seen Dave since he put a bullet in the head of Gary Sallis, the up-to-that-point secret leader of a dormant, murderous Miami cult. Shamed and blacklisted, Dave went into hiding, speaking only through his attorney as he battled charges and tried to stay out of prison for his part in the murder of Miami teen Patty Morales a decade before.
“My contacts on the force tell me he’s not doing so hot,” Harras said. “They’ve been keeping tabs on him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dave was on their radar long before the stuff with La Iglesia. Once the church scandal hit, it got a lot of people in my line of work interested. They say he’s living on the street these days, drinking and using, spending whatever money he and his family have left,” Harras said, taking another pull from the beer. “The Iglesia stuff last year sent him reeling. We put a bright light on his deepest, darkest secret and then he ran. You’d know better than me, but it feels like he’s self-destructing.”
The idea that Dave, one of his closest friends, one of the few people who stuck by Pete when he was at the lowest bottom of his own alcoholism, was now in the throes of addiction hit Pete hard. The guilt stabbed and turned inside Pete’s stomach. How had he let it go on this long? he wondered. He should have sought Dave out sooner. Tried to help him. If anyone knew what it was like to want to dive headlong into the darkness of drink and drugs, it was Pete.
“Got a bead on him?”
“Actually, I do.” Harras dug into his back pocket and handed Pete a slip of paper. “Just the basics—last seen, KAs, the usual. Keep me posted.”
“You got it,” Pete said as he turned toward his car.
Before he could finish the pivot, Harras cleared his throat. Pete wheeled back around.
“Hey, gotta ask—how’re you feeling?” Harras said, motioning toward the restaurant. Pete could hear the droning beats of New Order’s “Regret”—clearly a Kathy choice—coming from the space.
“About all this?”
“Fine,” Pete said, not hesitating. “I think it’s good. I’m glad they’re happy.”
“But are you happy?”
“I’m happy for Kathy.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
Pete ran a hand over his face.
“She deserves to be with someone like Marco,” he said. “She wouldn’t be happy with me. Not me six months ago or me today. Plus, she turned me down. So, this is just the way it goes. I can’t blame her.”
“That’s pretty mature of you,” Harras said. “Hell, I’m surprised I even got invited.”
“Yeah, I wondered how you finagled that.”
They shared a quick, staccato laugh. They both turned their heads at the sound of the restaurant’s front door swinging open. “How charming, two boys sitting outside and whining about girls,” Kathy said with a smirk. “I mean, I’m assuming that’s what’s happening. I’m usually right.”
“We’re just catching up,” Harras said as Kathy joined them. She motioned for Harras’s beer and took a swig before handing it back.
“Is that all?” she said. “Quite the after-party you guys have going out here. I’m not even going to get into the fact that it looks like you’re fucking leaving, Pete Fernandez.”
“Harras was telling me what he’d heard about Dave,” Pete said. “I’m going to try and track him down.”
“Like, right now? Well, good luck with that,” Kathy said. “I’ve tried. He doesn’t want to be found. He’s strung out.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Pete heard the car pulling into the strip mall parking lot as he yanked his keys out of his pocket. He reached for the front door of The Book Bin and waited a moment. It was close to one in the morning and, aside from Pete’s own car, the lot had been empty. A black Oldsmobile flashed its lights at Pete, beckoning him. Pete ignored it and slid the key into the lock. Pete heard the car door open and slam shut in quick succession. He pulled the key back and turned around. A wiry man with sparse brown hair was making his way toward Pete.
“Can I help you?” Pete asked.
“I’m Edward Rosen. I’m an art dealer and attorney, but I also … represent important people. One in particular,” the man said, close now, extending his nicely manicured hand. “And my client would like to discuss something with you.”
“That’s nice,” Pete said. “But seeing as how it’s one in the morning and I’m exhausted, I’m going to have to—what’s the right term? Put a pin in this one for a bit.”
“I apologize for disturbing you,” Rosen said. “But it’s of great urgency that my client speak to you. He guarantees that the meeting will be mutually beneficial. He would consider your speedy response a personal favor.”
“Mr. Rosen,” Pete said. “You seem nice enough. Well-mannered, that sort of thing, so I won’t be rude but, first off—why would you expect me to get in a car with you and go somewhere at this time of night? Second, I’m retired. I’m not taking new cases.”
“I’m aware of your status, so I won’t beat around the bush, Mr. Fernandez,” Rosen said, absentmindedly cracking the knuckles on his left hand. “I represent Alvaro Mujica. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”
Pete had. Mujica was an old school bolitero—a numbers guy who ran illegal lotteries around Miami, plus who knows what other illicit activities. Though the landscape of Miami’s underworld was an everchanging beast, Mujica had managed to carve out a constant place for himself. The former Bay of Pigs infantryman claimed to the press that he was just a humble, retired mamey fruit farmer. But the truth was very different.
Pete sighed and let his keys drop back into his pocket.
“I know your boss,” Pete said, his voice flat. “If that was your trump card, then I’m gonna ask you to leave. It’s late. I’m tired. And I’ve spent too much of my time working for bad men. It usually ends up with me beaten or shot. Kind of done with that for a long while. Nice to meet you, though.”
“Dismissing me would be unwise,” Rosen said. “Like I said, Mr. Mujica is looking for some help with a very delicate—and personal—matter.”
With that, Pete turned around and started to open the door again. As it closed behind him, he could still see Rosen standing there, watching him through the smudged front door glass.
Pete knew something was off the second he walked in. For one, a light was on—near the back, where the bookstore office was. The space Pete sometimes used for clients and his investigative work. “Used” being the key word. It was late and he knew he’d turned the light off. He heard noises, too. Thumping. A muttered curse word.
Gonna be one of those nights, he thought. He wasn’t carrying his gun. He didn’t do that anymore. And for the first time since he’d decided to permanently tuck his father’s old firearm in a lockbox, he felt regret.
Pete walked slowly through the darkened bookstore, the layout of the small space imprinted in his brain, trying to keep his footfalls silent. As he got closer to the noise—and the person causing the ruckus—he was able to make out a few words.
“This is unbelievable,” said the voice, sounding tired and put-upon. “There’s no end in sight.”
A few more paces and Pete let out a short sigh of relief. He was glad he didn’t have his gun after all.
He found Isabel Levitz in the SCI-FI/FANTASY aisle, sitting on the floor, surrounded by mass market paperbacks from every decade—Star Trek and Star Wars novels, Asimov, Herbert, Tolkien, and more—moving one book onto another pile and then moving it back, hypnotized by a mission only she seemed to be aware of.
“Isabel?” Pete asked.
She jerked, and her glasses rattled to the floor. She glanced up at Pete, squinting as she tried to grab for her fallen bifocals. She put them back on her face before responding.
“Pete? Oh, hi,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you this late.”
“I could say the same to you,” Pete said. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, well, no,” she said, her shoulders slumping slightly as she looked around at the various piles of books, placed in an order only she could comprehend. “I was lying in bed and realized our organizational system for this aisle is a mess, so I figured I’d come by and fix it before we opened tomorrow, and, well, that became its own mess.…”
Pete laughed. A genuine laugh—not laced with sarcasm or snark. It felt nice.
“Are you sure this has to happen now?” He knew the answer. Isabel was retired. Books had been her working life and now, alone with no children and little family, books were all she had. He was lucky to have an employee who was this committed to the store. She chuckled. “I guess not, but here I am.”
“Well, don’t stay too late, all right?” Pete said. “I just came by because I needed to pick something up from the office.”
She waved at him as he made his way to the back of the store. He walked past the shelves of books and related paraphernalia with no shortage of nostalgia. It was in this store that he’d gotten his footing after the bottom fell out. His friend, Dave Mendoza, had offered Pete a lifeline of sorts: part-time work with full-time pay, and a place to call home that wasn’t dimly lit, playing bad classic rock, and reeking of gin. That felt like a long time ago. Pete had a few years under his belt. Plenty of bad decisions. He hadn’t envisioned himself walking through these doors again, much less running the place. But skating past death tends to change your perspective.
Now Dave was gone. Harras was retired. Kathy was spending more time writing about crimes than helping to solve them—not to mention her life with Marco. Pete had almost lost his life trying to atone for the years he’d misspent. Time spent drinking. Doing the wrong things. He felt that he’d atoned for that. It was time to simplify. Pete turned down the MYSTERY/THRILLER aisle. He grabbed a copy of William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness before making a left at the far wall, and entered a tiny office. He set the book down on his desk, which took up most of the room, along with a small cot that nearly blocked the door. It was in this space that he’d barricaded himself, a few years previous, as a serial killer tore through the city. It was here that he reached for a vodka bottle and embraced the demons that had been scratching at the walls of his mind. It was here that he let them back in.
He heard Isabel’s light footsteps and the click and clack of the front door lock, followed by the jangle of the chime hanging off the knob. She wasn’t big on goodbyes, he thought, and smiled.
Pete, like most alcoholics, had come into the rooms when he’d hit his bottom—the lowest point of his life that also created a moment of clarity, a break in the dark clouds that allowed him to see, for once, that he needed to make a change. He never thought he could sink lower, but he did on that day. His ex-fiancée, Emily, had just been abducted by a bloodthirsty madman named Julian Finch, and he felt completely helpless—and guilty—for the darkness swirling around them. He’d opted out. He chose to dive into the abyss and let go rather than face reality and try to help. Emily survived. She never forgave him.
Their relationship had been fraught long before, though.
Years ago, she’d left him, his drinking souring a relationship they thought fast-tracked to happiness. Then she’d married, settled into a photogenic, suburban life. When her husband started fucking his assistant, her annual holiday postcard life had been flipped.
Emily lived in Europe, last Pete heard. It’d taken a while, but the parallels between his relationship with Emily and his off-and-on romance with Kathy had not been lost on him. He was trying to course-correct. But often, the heart does what it wants.
He sat in front of his laptop and waited for it to boot up. The idea that Alvaro Mujica wanted anything to do with him could not be good. His gut told him to call Kathy, but he doubted the party was over—or that she’d be interested in talking shop tonight. He gave his email a quick glance. He flagged a query from an investigator he knew in L.A., Juniper Song, and promised to deal with it later. Then he closed the browser and tapped a few keys to load a familiar file. His eyes scanned the text: dates, locations, some grainy surveillance camera stills.
These five pages were all the information Pete had on Vincent Salerno, the man who had nearly killed him. The document was a garbled puzzle of bits of intel—sightings, tips, rumors—cobbled together from Pete working the phones, trying to figure out the “why” behind what Salerno did. The only active case on Pete’s docket.
The lead-in to Vincent Salerno’s appearance in Pete’s Spring Valley, New York, office was fuzzy, but Pete could make out shapes and movement. At the time, Pete had been seeing a woman named Jen Ferris. She worked as a stripper at a club a short drive from Pete’s business. As with Emily and Kathy, the romance had not been healthy, and it imploded due in large part to Pete’s inability to deal with the realities of adult relationships. He wanted something. He knew that. But he wasn’t ready to open himself up to the price of intimacy. Jen sussed him out fast, and was quick to cut him loose.
Jen’s father had been a two-bit mob associate, working on the fringes of the DeCalvacante crime family, the New Jersey satellite to one of the larger Five Families of New York. Something Doug Ferris did got the attention of Salerno, who decided to approach Pete about the man, with a mob pal along for the ride. Pete managed to overpower and shame the two gangsters. Soon after the incident, he was on his way back to Miami, pulled away by a case involving a missing state senator’s son. Upon his return to New York, a trip Pete had taken just to load up his belongings and head back south, Pete was approached by an FBI agent named Amanda Chopp. The agent didn’t mince words—Doug Ferris and his daughter were dead. What did Pete know about it? Nothing. That was the truth. Nothing at the time. Enter Salerno. RIP Chopp, bullet to the head. Pete was close to meeting the same fate, had Chopp’s partner not arrived when he did.
Even then, it had been close.
The file had become a totem of sorts for Pete. The thing he thought about when his head hit the pillow, or when he was stuck in traffic. It filled the empty spaces between the life he’d scraped together in the wake of the attack. What would drive a mid-level mobster like Vinnie Salerno, who was probably making a decent if illicit living for himself, go rogue and murder three people and gravely injure a fourth? Every time Pete got a bit of info, a photo, a tip, or a whiff of what might tie it all together, it disappeared as soon as it popped up, leaving conflicting ideas and jagged, confusing strands of thoughts in its wake. Pete had no idea where to go from here.
He got up with a start at the sound. He’d been so immersed in the file that he hadn’t recognized the familiar front door buzzer. Had Isabel lost her keys or forgotten something? He walked back toward the door and saw a figure standing outside, backlit by streetlights on Bird Road. Rosen again?
As Pete got closer, he realized he did not know the man—older, gruff-looking, and overdressed—wearing layers of clothing that didn’t fit the perpetually humid Miami weather. A man out of place.
Pete opened the door.
The man looked up to meet Pete’s eyes, as if being awoken from a deep sleep.
“Pete Fernandez?” he said, his voice a hoarse croak. “What do you know about your mother?”
From Miami Midnight by Alex Segura. Used with the permission of the publisher, Polis. Copyright © 2019 by Alex Segura.