Fire and Wanda, Chapter 2, Scene 1


Chapter 2



The sun was almost up by the time I’d finished my little stroll down memory lane and I knew I was going to have to start figuring out a good line to drop on my editor for why the story wasn’t quite ready yet. Either that or dash back down to the office before anybody else got there and hammer away, but that would be too much like playing the dedicated reporter. I wasn’t even the slightest bit interested in playing that role for some half-assed story that wasn’t even going in the main paper. Screw that. So what time was it now? 6:49? Fine. I figured I’d make my entrance around 9:30, quarter-to-ten. That’d give me enough time to get my lie straight.

It was also enough time to grab some breakfast at Lorraine’s, one of those rare beaten up little nooks that actually catered to basic ordinary folks who were looking for a place with a menu that had basic ordinary folks in mind. Not the sun-fried whitefish tourist types, and certainly not the sun-fried boat-floating beautiful people “residents” who lived in the gated communities within the gated communities within the gated communities that kept them safe and sound from the type of folks who would even admit in public that they had ever had breakfast at a place like Lorraine’s.

Which is pretty much why it was one of my favorite spots.

By the time I’d gotten dressed, which for me never took that long since I wasn’t much into appearance, the last shreds of whatever darkness remained from the previous evening had been bleached from the sky. My Honda Prelude, which was a three-year-old faded red ’86 with worn-out black interior, wasn’t much of a match for the muscle cars that prowled the freeways at the beck and command of their young and shirtless young masters, but it still had enough of a kick and a snarl to scare off the unsuspecting punk – or at least to keep him from wedging into my lane at 80 miles per hour. I took it as a point of pride whenever one of them flipped me the bird from outside the driver’s side window. I wore their tattered little birds like badges of honor.

But as it turned out, today wasn’t going to be one of those honor days. Matter of fact, my drive down to Lorraine’s was fairly uneventful. I arrived about a half-hour after leaving home, glad to see that there were only a few cars parked out front. That’s when I noticed one of the cars belonged to a friend of mine. I turned the engine off and peered through my windshield at a somewhat windblown long-haired figure wearing the required South Florida shades and seated right in front of the huge floor-to-ceiling window that offered patrons one of the city’s best views of local wildlife as they passed back and forth on their way to or from being beautiful people – or watching beautiful people. Only Bob wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to the wildlife, which is probably one of the reasons we were such good friends. The way he was seated on the stool, his large frame hunched aggressively over his crumpled newspaper, hand squeezed around the side of what was probably his third or fourth cup of coffee, Bob was making it clear he wasn’t interested in being approached for idle conversation.

He hated it down here too. My man.

“So what’s cookin’ Robbie?”

I called him that deliberately because I knew it’d piss him off until he saw it was me. The tense look on his features as he slowly swung his head around in the direction of the offending voice let me know my mission had been accomplished.

“Shit. Alton?”

I grinned.

“Join you?”

He looked at me for a minute, then shook his head as he rattled the paper and folded it closed.

“If it was anybody else, man. Anybody else.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t. And besides, I’m the one who knows you really don’t know how to read, remember? Secret’s safe with me, though.”

“Oh. Yeah. Right. So…what the fuck?”

An elderly lady seated at a table nearby frowned as she half-turned disapprovingly in our direction. Neither one of us paid her any mind.

“I got things goin’ on, Bob. Kinda serious things.”

Bob shrugged and took a sip of his coffee, looking not quite at me but at a spot just past my left shoulder.

“Umm. Serious. OK.”

“You know, you could at least pretend to be paying attention to what I’m saying here. We both know you couldn’t care less whether I live or die, but just while I’m sitting here? If you could try real hard and pretend like we’re friends and that me, as a friend, is approaching you with an issue that he’d like to discuss with you. You know. As a friend.”

Now he was looking right at me. And grinning. He let go of the paper and peeked at me over the top of his shades.

“Alton! Didn’t see ya sittin’ there, buddy. How the hell you doin’?”


Now he was laughing.

“Really is you, isn’t it? So. These serious things you’ve got going on. Your life is fucked up and you’re the last one to know, is that it?”

This time the elderly lady turned disapprovingly all the way around and glared. I felt like asking her if she wanted to turn us over her knee, figuring it might give her the sexual rush she’d been missing for the past 20 or 30 years, but I decided she might not appreciate my style of humor. And anybody that angry who hadn’t had sex in as long as I was guessing she’d been out the game probably didn’t have much else keeping her going besides her anger, and yet here we were in swingin’ springtime 1990s South Florida. Poor thing.

“Sorry,” I said, trying to sound sincere.

She kept staring. I motioned back and forth from Bob to me, then to Bob again.

“Old friends. We’re old friends. Sometimes we get carried away.”

She kept staring for about another ten seconds, then, just as I was about to say something not quite so friendly, her eyes flashed a final warning before she turned quickly back around to once again guard her loneliness. Bob pushed his shades back up his nose, then slowly shook his head.

“Damned shame,” he said, just low enough so she couldn’t hear it.

“You done in here?” I asked.


“In here. You done? You still waiting on an order, or you through?”

“But I thought…”

“Yeah, but I’m thinking not in here. I was gonna get something, but I think it can wait. Right now what can’t wait is what it is I want to talk to you about.”

Bob shrugged again, then motioned to the waitress that he needed the check.

“Whatever. Man, when you say these are some serious things, you meant it, huh?”

I nodded.

“Pretty much. Yeah.”




“So I was thinking of maybe going,” I said, after telling Bob about my brief conversation with Corinne the previous evening. I’d given him most of the background on Wanda, but some things I wasn’t quite sure when I’d be ready to talk about, even to a good friend.

We had talked about walking down to the beach, which was quite a stretch from where we started, but we didn’t get much further than a public bench two blocks away from the restaurant. Bob lit up his third cigarette, then leaned back and stretched out both arms along the back of the bench.

“You’re a strange one, Alton. I’ll give you that.”

“Yeah. Well. But, I mean, you gotta admit that whole thing with the box is pretty intriguing, right? I mean, why do you think she would have left me anything? And what the hell do you suspect it is?”

“I wouldn’t have a clue, man. Not a clue. This is your dead ex-hooker, not mine.”

I gave Bob enough of a look to let him know how far he’d crossed over the line. Without even looking at me, he muttered, “Sorry.”

I didn’t answer.

“So. Anyway. Moving right along, you say the two of you kinda had something going on, right? At least for awhile. So maybe she wanted to leave you something to remember her by, right?”

I shrugged, then asked Bob for one of his cigarettes.

“First thing is this; we didn’t really have what you’d call a ‘thing’. Not exactly. At least not enough to where she’d be getting me anything special or leaving me anything in her will.”

“So then you were, ahem, just friends? Or no. Let me guess. You were like the little brother she never had, except for the times when you were screwing each other’s brains out.”

“I never said we screwed. Who said we screwed?”

This time it was Bob who gave me the look.

“Young healthy male. Middle-aged babe hotter than the fourth of July down below the Mason Dixon line? Dude. You don’t have to be a master puzzlesmith to put that one together. Consider yourself lucky, man. Couldn’t get any better training. And don’t get offended. But look, the way I’m seeing this thing right now, the only way you’re ever gonna find out why she left you this thing, whatever it is, is for you to find out whatever it is. Because whatever it is is the key. All right? Can’t get to the ‘why’ until you got hold of the ‘what’. Once you’ve got that, you’ll have all the answers you need.”

“You know, for somebody to be so damned stupid and illiterate, you sure know how to act like you’re smart. You’re good, boy. So you’re saying I oughta go, then.”

Bob took off his shades and tried to rub them clean between thumb and forefinger on his shirt. He slipped them on for a second, grunted, shook his head in dissatisfaction, then pulled them off again. This time he breathed on them. Held them up to the sunlight. Success.

“Nope. I’m not the one saying a damned thing. You’d already made up your mind long before you came to see me. My guess is you knew you had to go before you ever hung up from Corinne. This is what you’d call one of those life journey things.”

“Gee Uncle Bob. Sounds deep.”

“Oh it is, young grasshopper. Indeed it is.”


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