If the ferry didn’t come soon it wouldn’t come at all, and Simon would be stuck on Hogfish Key another night. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the Keys did not lie in the path of Adeline, a Category 4 and counting, expected to make landfall in the night.
He’d been foolish to stay so long. Most of the few residents had left already, and the island was all but empty, the dock deserted. The barnacled wood, rocking gently on supple waves, creaked in his ears, oddly clear. He could not feel or hear the wind. It, and most every other sound, lingered only as a ghost.
It might have been serene — in an eerie, ominous sort of way — were it not for the boy. Dark of skin, eight or nine years old. Simon didn’t know about kids, so he wasn’t sure and didn’t care anyway. He did care that the child sat so close to him on the bench, so very close, when all other benches were empty. It galled him to no end. The boy wore a blue button-up shirt and coral shorts, and a backpack which was filled, evidently, with snacks. At the moment, he held a juicy pineapple ring, the rind cut off neatly. Its ichor dripped down both hands and arms as he took a noisy bite.
The boy breathed a soft, satisfied sigh. He leaned back and stretched his arms, and Simon hoped he wouldn’t touch him with those wet, sticky hands. He flinched away — too late. He felt the small hand graze his stubbled cheek.
The boy stared in wordless surprise. As if he hadn’t realized Simon was there at all till his hand had felt the truth of it. The two gazed at each other a moment, Simon stifling rage, the child not stifling curiosity.
The boy smiled and took another pineapple ring from his bag. When he finished he threw a small piece, a bit with the rind left overlooked, at the trash can at the far side of the little pier. Missed, of course. Normally a gull would swoop down and take it, but Simon hadn’t seen a gull the entire afternoon.
It was his turn to sigh now. He regretted staying so long, but more, regretted coming to this little sliver of land in the first place. The trip had brought him no answers, only questions. The ground felt less solid beneath him than when he arrived five days ago.
Simon spoke the name under his breath, as if doing so would make the story write itself. Pascual Servando de Paz, serial abductor and torturer. A media sensation last summer, and now again this past week, after the sentencing. More was known now than when the victims were first found, but none of it made the man easier to understand. Things only made less and less sense.
* * *
It started with Eugene Drury of Key West, a homeless man, age 43. Then a thirty-something tourist had vanished in Islamorada, then a frail grandmother of Miami, and finally two little girls outside Port St. Lucie. It was the last two that had caught police and FBI attention; before that, local authorities had seen nothing more than a missing person case or two.
Annabeth and Lilli changed all of that.
De Paz’s reign of terror lasted twelve days, during which Floridians feared to let their children out of sight, or their elderly. One by one the victims showed up, abandoned but traumatized by de Paz, bread crumbs that led to his arrest in Alabama fifteen miles past state lines. They found him in his dusty Jeep, staring straight ahead, waiting. The Jeep was empty; he had let the girls go at a Shell station nearby.
A happy ending, the bad guy caught.
That was then, of course — before anyone knew a thing about the man. Simon himself had reported the story, as had dozens of other journalists, so he knew the details well. An operator and tour guide at the island’s distillery, de Paz was passionate in his work and had the knowledge and insight to excel at it. He’d even consulted for a book on rum history back in ’06. As to his personal life, he lived with one Maricela Pilar, a girlfriend of five years to whom he’d recently been engaged, and her daughter, who de Paz loved and got along with, if anything, better than Pilar did herself.
He was not that fictional creature folk call a happy man; he was something far rarer, healthier, more at home in the world: a contented man. A rewarding career, a beautiful home, the love of his life, soon to be his wife, a child he loved as his own. Any one of these things are precious and rare, Simon thought. Let alone to have all of them. Pascual Servando de Paz, it seemed, had everything he could have wish for.
It didn’t make sense. Why would such a man just snap?
He was clearly not a psychopath; he’d expressed remorse for his crimes, empathy for those he’d terrorized and hurt. He’d asked for no ransom, made no demand, had nothing to gain from his spree. So…why had he done it?
Theories abounded, of course, but none held water, as most theorists themselves would admit if you pressed them on it. Most were willing to shrug it off and move on to a more current story.
Not Simon Hargrove. Not now, anyway, the trial just finished and the story troubling him yet again. It was on a hunch that he’d come here — to Hogfish Key, near the end of September and in the middle of hurricane season — to speak with de Paz’s fiancée.
* * *
He arrived by ferry, Monday morning, without a scrap of information as to her address, knowing only that she made pastries for a local street vendor who catered to tourists, as most business this side of Hogfish did. It was a small bit of land, even for one of the Keys, with no road bridge to Key West and barely more than a single sand-strewn road running the spine of the island, cleaving the tourism side from the distillery.
It had been a warm and muggy day, quite unlike today, and Simon had ordered a mojito from the first bar he found, little more than a shack on the sleepy beach. He squeezed a lime wedge into the glass and pushed it below the ice with his straw, eying the bartender: a deeply tanned, long-haired man whose age was hard to tell.
Simon calculated a moment. It was a small island, yes. Small enough that its residents might know each other. Such communities were often insular, and he doubted the man would give her away if he asked. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try.
“Do you know a Maricela Pilar? A chef of some sort?”
He hoped his vagueness, and the lack of mentioning de Paz, would arouse less suspicion but he needn’t have worried. The man gave a vague smile and pointed west. “Who, Mari? Oh, yeah, her food is the best. Haven’t seen her in ages, not since…” He frowned a moment. “Keeps to herself anymore. Only Mason sees her much, and just when she drops her stuff off.”
“And this Mason is…?”
“His truck’s at the far side of the beach, over by the mangroves. But Mari probably won’t be there.”
Simon wasn’t surprised. She had kept herself distant from media of all types, especially reporters like him. Her phone service had been cancelled last year, and she had little to no internet presence, having deleted the few social media accounts she’d had. It would be a feat to track her down, despite how hard it was to hide in such a small place.
A five-minute walk later he spotted the food truck — a trailer, really, an Airstream painted Bahamian blue with fish swarming round a hand-lettered menu. Three women were in line already, two in bikinis and the other in a faded sundress. He studied them, wondered if one might be Maricela Pilar. They looked to be about her age. He peered inside. This Mason, who bought pastries from her, wasn’t even working today; only a teenager, her dreads languid and heavy in the thick air.
He came to the front of the line. Should he ask about Pilar? He felt sheepish, having stared at those women; he had no wish to be thought a stalker. “I, uh…just, can I have a slice of key lime pie?”
“Sorry,” the girl’s eyebrows shot up. “Just sold the last piece of the day.”
“Ah. Well, never mind then. Oh! But I’m looking for Maricela Pilar, who I understand supplies them for you. For Mason. If you see her, can you give her my card?”
She read the slip of paper he handed her, looked back and forth between it and him, eyes narrowed. She didn’t answer so he gave a half smile, turned, and walked quickly away.
He didn’t find her that day, or the next. She found him — at the bar, halfway into a margarita, studying the salt-rimmed glass in impatient annoyance as the same bartender watched a soccer game on a portable television at least fifteen years old.
“You’re the reporter,” she said, not asked, having slipped into the stool beside him. He looked her over, startled. She didn’t make eye contact, but he knew exactly who she was, though he’d never seen a photo before. She was younger than he’d expected.
Simon drew in a breath, ransacked his mind for the words he’d carefully prepared. Before he could speak, she said, “I’ll tell you what you want to know.” When he didn’t answer, stunned, she went on. “You’re here about Pascual, right?” She smiled ironically. “Why else would you be here?”
“Okay,” Simon managed lamely.
She ordered a margarita for herself — “On him.” — and turned to face him at last. “I thought all of you had given up hounding me by now. What is it you want to know?”
“Well, I wanted to … Wait!” he sputtered. “Can I ask…? Why are you talking to me so readily? When you’ve kept the media away all this time? Why now?”
She smirked again. “Maybe because you remind me a lot of him.”
His skin blanched, then flushed. “Really?”
“No. Not at all. I have one condition. For all of this.”
“You’re not going to like it,” she warned.
“Let me decide that.”
Pilar gave a slow nod. “Okay. You can’t print any of this. It’s off the record. Anything I tell you.”
Simon found himself nodding. It wasn’t what he wanted, but somehow that didn’t matter. He’d come here for his own strange fascination in the case as much as for his job. Before speaking, though, he reached quickly into his pocket and set his phone to record.
* * *
“Why him?” Simon began. “Do you have any idea?”
Maricela Pilar smiled ruefully. “Don’t people always say that when it happens? ‘He was the last guy anyone would think…’ ”
“People do, but there is a type. Isolated, socially awkward, loners. But I have the impression, and please, correct me if I’m wrong, that de Paz was none of those things.”
Pilar blinked and her eyes grew a shade greyer. “No,” she said, almost to herself. “No, he wasn’t.”
She took a deep drink and sighed. “I’ll tell you what I think, what I know. I don’t know his mind, but I know him. I know things no one else does. You’re right. He was happy, extroverted. He didn’t care about things like success or money or power. He took what life gave him. Laughed at himself — all the time. He couldn’t stay angry at anyone, which I can tell you, that made me angry sometimes. You couldn’t get him to dislike anyone, and believe me, I tried.”
Simon shook his head. “So…what happened?”
Pilar gazed at the bar, studied the whorls of unvarnished wood. He thought he saw, for the first time, a look of defeat, of regret. She wouldn’t look at him, but her shell of cool confidence had cracked.
“He was drunk that night. Six, seven months, maybe, before the arrest. There was a fight. A bar fight. Not here — he took the ferry east that day on business, then stopped for a drink in the evening. A little dive on Higg’s Beach. Some rum drink, I’m sure.” She smiled wistfully. “That man loved rum the way some men love their country. He wasn’t a mean drunk, either. It just brought him out more and more, so that everyone was his friend.”
“So, a fight,” Simon broke in. “What was it about?”
“I don’t remember,” said Pilar. Simon watched her closely. Her eyes were still downcast but her voice grew softer, like she was talking more to herself than to him now. “He told me, but I guess it didn’t seem important then. What was strange was that it happened at all. Not in the bar — out by the dog park, across the street. Some tough guy wandered by, probably a stray from the tourist traps. Anyway, Pascual beat him to a pulp.”
Pilar met Simon’s eyes again, her own bright and wide as if she’d just remembered he was there. “It scared me. Him come home like that? All that blood, the bruises? I didn’t know what happened till he sobered up in the morning.”
Simon frowned. This felt more in line with the man the media had come to know, but it still didn’t draw a straight line from his life with Pilar to the abductions. “And then?”
Pilar shrugged. She shook her head, then didn’t stop shaking it. She stared at the dregs of her drink. The bartender, pretending not to listen up till now, stood still, the lime halves he’d been cutting into wedges forgotten on the counter.
“And then…then the fear came. Not me. I got over the whole thing fast; though I can tell you it was a shock, him of all people. Fights happen, you know? You move on.
“He didn’t, though. He couldn’t. He couldn’t forget what he’d done. What he’d never believed he was capable of. It was a poisoned root in his belly, and it grew to where he couldn’t trust himself. Couldn’t forgive himself. The fear he had…it was of him. He could barely eat, had trouble breathing. His heart would pound and his stomach burn.
“He said to me one night, ‘If I could do that to another man then what else is there inside me? Any moment I could ruin everything, just reach out and crush the life we’ve built together with my hands. Part of me wants to — just to get it over with. So I don’t have to feel like there’s a bomb inside of me, waiting to go off.’ I remember he told me that in bed, shirtless, the sweat of his guilt pooling on his brow and his chest. I comforted him; or I tried. I said that wasn’t him, never had been, he was not the kind to be violent like that. It didn’t help.”
She sighed. “That fear…it had a gravity of his own, and it sucked him in with the force of his own imagination. Then…well, guess he kind of figured he couldn’t take it another day. He did what he’d said — grabbed it in both hands and crushed it.”
Pilar slammed her hand on the bar. Her fingers seized a forgotten lime half and she held it like the heart of a human sacrifice, and squeezed. They were strong fingers, Simon saw; the lime emptied onto the bar, pulp, juice, and seed, till all she held was the empty rind.
She sat on her stool again and slumped forward, defeated. The bartender stared and said nothing.
“That’s why he took them,” she intoned. “That’s why Pascual did what he did. I’m sure of it. He finally did the terrible thing.”
Pilar downed the rest of her glass; melted ice by now, Simon guessed, but it looked like she needed it either way. He did, too, but it was not the time to order another. That much was clear.
She looked up at him, weary and bereft, then looked away. Then did the same motions over again. Simon exhaled, released a rattling breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Thank you,” he said, having no other words. She didn’t reply, and he left her alone.
Two days passed before he decided to leave. He hadn’t planned to stay this long, especially with the news that Adelaide had veered off its course, and headed straight toward the Keys now. But the island held him in place, earthfast.
He couldn’t fathom it. There was no way he would ever do a thing like de Paz had, whatever piss-drunk brawl he might find himself in. Simon wasn’t sure what baffled him most: the fact that Pilar’s story was beyond his understanding, or that it was, apparently, a possible thing for a person to do. It left a sour taste in his mouth.
On Thursday, that very morning, the malaise wore off. He rose from his hotel bed and knew it was time to leave.
Simon glanced at his phone; he’d overslept and missed the check-out time. He dashed toward the lobby office to ask for an exception on the fee, considering the hurricane, but the lobby was locked, empty. The whole island seemed abandoned — probably days ago, as he had moped alone in his room.
The first two of the three ferries had come and gone by now; the last would return in an hour. Simon walked the short distance to the dock, very aware that the ground he trod might well contain Pascual de Paz’s own footsteps, impressions left by the man in this place he had so violently fled. Now Simon, too, walked in those footsteps, and shivered.
There was no sense to be made of it, he decided now, inching away from the sticky-handed boy. He might as well write the whole trip off. Even if he could figure it out, even if he wanted to print it, he couldn’t use what he had found. At best, Simon had to call it a wash.
Well, so what if it was? It wouldn’t be the first time a lead had not panned out. Nor the second, nor the hundredth and second. It came with the territory; he knew that well.
If only he could shake the lingering dismay, the disappointment.
He asked himself: Disappointment? In what?
He answered: In Maricela Pilar and her story. In de Paz. In this island. And…in myself.
Myself? For what?
For not understanding. Not comprehending.
Beside him, nearly forgotten by Simon, the boy finished his last ring of pineapple. He licked his hands, then reached into his backpack, drawing out — half a lime. He opened the plastic sandwich bag (his mother must have packed it for him) and studied it for a long moment.
Who was this child? Simon hadn’t even spoken to him yet, he realized only now. Even though they sat together in the shadow of a storm, bracing together in the unquiet calm of a drawn breath. They were here together, each rapt in thought: Simon, of the depths of human misery. The boy, of a simple hemisphere of fruit.
The boy cupped the lime in both hands as if it were a communion bowl and brought it to his lips, where he sucked and slurped on its juices. Simon stared. It was strange to see someone eat a lime in this way, by itself. But then, he thought, there are different ways to eat bitter food. Some can’t stand it at all, while others eat grapefruit for breakfast with its own special spoon.
It might be sweet, Simon felt as the boy enjoyed the lime, to taste one for himself. To hold the thing in his hands like the boy did, softly and with grace, even knowing that it might be bitter. To live in that tension, hands streaming with bright citrus, and thrive in it.
He looked at his watch and noted the time. No, the ferry wouldn’t come, not today — for either of them. They were here together, and Adeline held them both in its hand, just as Pascual had held his perfect life.
The clouds were darkening, their weight gathering in the east. Simon stood and turned to his companion. “Hey, buddy. What’s your name?”
“Miles,” the boy said. He met Simon’s eyes again and the reporter noted a likeness he hadn’t seen till now, the certain way his eyes crinkled with curiosity. Like the stare of the girl at Mason’s food truck, but less closed-off, less wary. Simon smiled.
“All right, Miles.” He gestured inland. “I think it’s time to find shelter.”