Authors: Alex Segura
A Pete Fernandez Mystery
“The past was filling the room like a tide of whispers.”
The Instant Enemy
didn’t see the kick coming. The boot crashed into his jaw, sending him farther into the dank alley. The two men paused to see if Pete had any plans to fight back. He didn’t. He felt blood trickle down his face.
Pete tried to stand up. His feet gave way. He slipped and landed on his ass, slamming into the metal garbage cans that lined the alley. He wasn’t sure where the pain was coming from anymore. The Miami air felt thick and heavy around him. His breathing was fast. Short, quick gasps.
Bile rose in Pete’s throat. He could taste some of the Jim Beam shots he’d downed over the course of the evening. He tried to wipe some of the sweat—and whatever else—from his face, but stopped when he caught a glimpse of his hand. Shaking and bloody, gravel and dirt embedded in his left palm.
One of the guys laughed as the other walked up and grabbed Pete, lifting him up by his shirt. The guy reeked of cheap beer and cheaper aftershave. He spit a wad of mucus at Pete’s face, most of it splattering on his left cheek. The guy let Pete drop and turned toward his friend.
Pete watched the duo lumber away, their curses muffling the sound of their footsteps. He wiped the gunk off his face and let out a jagged breath.
It had been another Miami scorcher. One of those days where you don’t want to consider leaving the house, or wearing pants. Where you get sunburned taking out the garbage. Where your shirt sticks to your slick body before you even get to your car. Pete’s phone had said ninety degrees that morning but it felt closer to a hundred. The evening had only brought a small respite—dimmed lights in a sauna. The rare, tropical breeze a teasing gift—a sweet whisper in your ear. Miami. Even the brightest sun and neon lights couldn’t change it. The place was fucked. Dirty. Corrupt. A nightmare happening in broad daylight.
Pete was on all fours now. His head hung down. A quick cough turned into a dozen and soon he was lying on his side, spittle dripping out of his mouth, his eyes out of focus and his body writhing in the dirt.
He tried to get up, his vision blurring. He got his footing and paused to catch his breath, his body leaning on the grime-covered wall. He tried to concentrate. On his hand pushing himself off the wall and toward the end of the alley. On each foot—left, right, left—as he started to walk. On what had led him back here, outside the Gables Pub, bloodied, drunk, and alone.
The night had started off routine. Standard. Pete needed to get out. Do some reading. His friends weren’t around anymore. He didn’t care. Fuck ’em. He was fine sitting at his favorite bar, reading his dead father’s worn copy of
. Shuffling the pages back every few minutes, having forgotten what he’d read, too proud to give up. The pub was on the fringe of what people considered Coral Gables—meaning it wasn’t as nice as the mansions and high-rise buildings that meshed with the tiny city’s old Spanish décor. Just a few miles from Miracle Mile, the pedestrian-friendly heart of the Gables, the pub felt like another world: dark, dirty, and out of place. Time passed. He had a few whiskey shots to go with his seven or eight beers and felt rough. Not smooth, like he used to feel after a few rounds, when the buzz glowed around his face and made him smile without thinking about it. No, he felt rough and grimy, like bare feet on a dirty sidewalk.
The two guys were big, but not built. Ex-frat boys with nothing to do but get wasted on a Tuesday night. The television perched over the bar was playing Dolphins football highlights from the night before. Jets 35, Dolphins 7. The two guys and their girlfriends were a few seats away at the other end of the bar, cursing at the screen. Pete found what little concentration he had disrupted. He put his book down and scowled at the double date. They shrugged and kept yapping. Pete groaned and ordered another round. Beer and a shot. The whiskey went down warm. He could feel it coating his throat and stomach.
Next thing he knew, he was sitting next to one of the women, his hand on her leg. Where were the guys? He wasn’t sure. Whatever. The other girl—chunkier, louder, obnoxious—was yelling something. She seemed upset. Pete swayed. He tried to play off how drunk he was to the girl, tried to make it seem intentional. His hand went too far. She tossed it off. He tried to stand up, one hand on the bar, his other swinging a bottle of Heineken around. That’s when he felt a hand gripping his shoulder. He remembered being pushed out the front door and into the street. It was the two guys. He’d thought they had left. Wrong.
Pete remembered mumbling an apology, but that was lost. Lost in the noise of the two guys yelling and lost as he felt himself being shoved into the alley. It was narrow and wet, dark and empty. That’s when he felt the first kick to his midsection. He was splayed on the ground, and trying to get himself back to standing only resulted in a weird push-up. The second kick hit him in the face.
Pete now tried to will the memory away but failed. He wiped his wrist over his mouth and found more blood.
He inched down the alley, away from the pub, toward the backstreets that would allow him some semblance of cover from the shame he knew was starting to kick in. He moved his tongue around his mouth, checking for missing teeth. Relieved to find there were no unwanted gaps.
He reached the end of the alley. Pete had parked his banged up Toyota Celica on the street a few blocks north of the bar, past a small parking lot. It was dark enough outside—a few hours past sunset—that he could limp to his car and not make too much of a scene.
He didn’t see any people or cars. Pete let go of the alley wall and began to half walk, half hobble across the street that intersected with the end of the alley. He was out of breath by the time he crossed the street and stopped to lean against the short cement wall surrounding the parking lot.
The sound of an engine cut through the quiet evening.
Pete turned to meet the noise. A van was approaching from his left, the clank-and-growl sound coming from under its hood getting louder as it approached. He stepped back. His first thought was that the two guys were back, this time with wheels. The van was close enough to Pete that he wasn’t sure he could risk darting back across the street. He was also unsure he could “dart” anywhere. His head throbbed and the pain in his side had become sharper. He considered the hospital for a second but pushed the thought out of his mind. He just wanted to get home.
The van was now close enough for Pete to see inside. He let his eyes wander over it, his vision lazy and blurry. As the van came up beside him, the driver came into focus—a tall, thin white man with longish brown hair. Pete couldn’t tell much else about him in the darkness. The driver didn’t notice Pete, watching the road instead. But then the van stopped for a second. Pete and the driver looked at each other. The driver nodded his head. He thought Pete wanted to cross the small street—which he had, but the arrival of the van threw him off. Pete motioned for the van to continue. At first he’d only noticed the driver, but as the vehicle drove on past him, Pete realized there was another passenger—a teenager, curled up in the front seat. The girl was petite—couldn’t be over sixteen, Pete figured—and her hair looked rumpled and disheveled.
Pete stepped back. The evening’s silence was replaced by the sound of rubber tires on asphalt, as the van accelerated and was gone.
tightened on the steering wheel. A bead of sweat formed at the edge of his scalp. The drunk man had caught him off guard, stepping into his path like that. The last thing he needed was to hit a pedestrian and make a scene. No matter. They were almost at the spot. The Voice would be appeased and grow quiet again.
The girl was splayed out on the passenger side, her head at a weird angle. He noticed the bloody smear at the base of her skull. He hadn’t wanted to do that, but she would have fought. She would have screamed. He thought back to a few hours earlier. Dadeland Mall—a giant eyesore located in suburban Kendall in southwest Miami. A giant block of stores and restaurants that looked more like a prison than anything entertaining. He’d followed the girl and her friends. They were window-shopping. Eating at the food court. The usual. He’d wooed her for days via e-mails, Facebook messages, and the occasional text message. His method hadn’t failed him. He was cautious.
He turned the van onto the expressway, heading south.
After a while, her friends had left. She needed a ride home. He texted her from the disposable phone he’d purchased that morning. From “my friend’s phone.”
Meet me outside, we can get a soda
. She was hesitant. He watched from the van. The only thing he’d held onto since the darker times. Since New Jersey. Virginia. Georgia. He changed the signage on the side every month or so. Some months he was
. Other months, it was
He spotted her standing outside of Macy’s, near the Lot C parking lot, alone. He got out of the van and approached her from behind. He tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around with a start, a confused look on her face.
“Excuse me, young lady?”
“I’m Steve’s uncle. Have you seen him? He said he was meeting a friend.”
She looked concerned.
“Oh, well, he said he was going to meet me here,” she said, with no prodding.
“That’s not like him not to show up,” he said, his hands sliding into his jeans pockets. “Weird. I dropped him off here a little while ago.”
She shrugged her shoulders and checked her phone. Nothing from “Steve.”
“Have you spoken to him recently?”
“Just a few minutes ago.”
“Hmm,” he said, rubbing his chin. He’d cleaned up a bit in anticipation of the encounter. His longish hair was tied back, his stubble trimmed to a reasonable length. He was as clean-cut as he had to be. “I’m going to take a quick swing around the parking lot and then maybe the other side of the mall. Want to come along?”
She hesitated. It sounded safe; he could see her debating it in her head.
“It’s up to you,” he said, shrugging and beginning to walk away. “I’m just getting a little worried about him. I can tell him you were looking for him, too—when I find him.”
“No, no,” she said, speeding up her pace to catch up with him. “It’s OK. Let’s go.”
He’d left a piece of pipe by the front passenger side tire. As she opened the van door he swung at her skull with force. She let out a slight yelp and tumbled forward. He pulled her up and pushed her into the van, looking around and confirming no one had seen him. He settled her into the seat, positioning her to look like she’d just dozed off. He allowed himself a moment to caress the hair framing her young face.
He turned off on the exit for Campbell Drive.
The girl whimpered. A slow, low moan of discomfort. He realized she would be awake soon and stepped on the accelerator. A little more speed was OK. They were almost there. And then he and the Voice would be sated for a little while longer. He turned the car radio on. The oldies station. The sound of Harry Nilsson’s smooth baritone came through the van’s scratchy stereo system.