Presidential Deal: A John Deal Mystery #5

Presidential Deal: A John Deal Mystery #5

John Deal is no hero--he just happens to be in the right place at the right time, cruising in the Gulf of Mexico when a group of Cuban refugees are ...

About The Author

Les Standiford

Les Standiford is the bestselling author of twenty books and novels, including the John Deal mystery series, and the works ...

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Near Coconut Grove, Florida

 Late May, on toward evening of the perfect boater’s day. In the distance, hovering over the Biminis, a towering bank of cumulus reflecting the last pink glow of the sun. Stretched out just ahead, the waters of Biscayne Bay. Going steely now. Soon to be indigo, along with the night.

Now or never, Deal thought. It was why they’d come out here, after all. Stop stalling.

He nodded to himself, reached for the controls, shoved for- ward, opened up the twin diesels on the Miss Miami Priss He was wondering if he’d finally gotten things right, if the big engines were going to finally fire in synch, thrust him forward over the swells like something shot out of a sling. Just as likely, though, the balky SOBs would erupt in a thundering explosion that would put an end to all the agony. That’s what he was thinking when he saw what was on the surface of the water up ahead.

At first he thought it might be a cluster of lobster buoys, broken loose from their traps in Biscayne Bay, drifted out toward the Gulf Stream, but that wasn’t right. Too many of them for that, the color, the shape, the movement all wrong.

Some kind of floating debris tossed from a cruise liner headed for the islands, that’s what crossed his mind next. There were ship’s captains who liked to save a few bucks that way—why have your garbage hauled by surly Teamsters in the Port of Miami when you could just chug out past the limit, dump it in the unprotesting sea?

But it wasn’t that kind of debris, either. He was close enough to see that now. And was cursing the fact that for once in his life, his mechanical abilities had held.

The engines had kicked in just the way he’d dreamed. He’d felt the pop at the back of his neck, the kind a schoolboy yearns for when he sees a powerful car. Miss Miami was a forty-five-foot Bayliner with a flying bridge and a patched-up hull. She was a charter fishing craft well past her prime, the kind of boat you see in a backwater marina in the wrong part of the Keys—you might drive by and notice her and think to yourself, She must have been something once.

Her glory days were long gone. There were a million younger, faster, better-designed boats out there now. But Miss Miami had belonged to his father and she was his now—another albatross he should have had the good sense to stay away from, but it was all he had left of his old man, really—and he’d poured everything there was to pour into her, and she had responded. Here she was now, just trying to please, show him she had a few moves left after all. An over-the-hill fishing boat hurtling over the waves like she was trying to get up on plane.

“What the hell is that?” Vernon Driscoll cried in his ear. Driscoll, in keeping with his bulk and his methodical ex-cop’s nature, was not an excitable man. But he had just come up from the galley, a couple of Red Stripe beers in one of his big hands, had not been ready for this.

Deal didn’t have time to answer. He shoved the throttles for- ward, threw himself against the wheel. The Miss Miami banked hard, riding up high against the waves, pushing out towering sheets of spray ahead of their starboard side.

Driscoll lost his footing and careened across the cockpit. The beers flew from his hand, one sailing over the rail, the other exploding like a grenade against the windscreen.

Deal sensed the stinging of glass shards at his cheek, saw from the corner of his eye Driscoll slam head-first into the console, felt the thud as the big man went down. Deal wanted to go for him, but he couldn’t. He was holding desperately to the wheel, praying to God they wouldn’t flip, praying to God they’d miss those people out there. All those people, bobbing in the waves just ahead.

# # #

Nineteen of them altogether. Nineteen women and children from Cuba and he’d nearly driven his boat through them as if they were a school of sea cows spread out to die.

He pulled the last woman over the transom, screaming back at her in his fractured Spanish, “Yes, yes, enemos su niña  have your baby.”

She heard him, but he couldn’t tell from her expression if she believed him. Still, she allowed herself to be dragged into the boat.

Once he had her aboard, Deal sagged back against the rail, gasping from exertion, staring at the ragtag cargo before him. All of the women wore orange life jackets, most of them so old they tied rather than snapped together. A few of the children had jackets, but most were too small. They’d had to cling to their mothers as they bobbed in the sea. They were still clinging, screaming, crying. The Miss Miami Priss had become a little corner of Hell.

Driscoll was still propped in the corner of the cockpit where Deal had dragged him, beginning to stir now. His eyes flickered open, blearily surveyed the scene around him, closed again.

“You want to change the channel?” Driscoll called, his hand lifting to the makeshift bandage tied about his head.

Deal nodded. He’d love to change the channel, find the one where two guys finish their cruise on the bay without incident, put in at Matheson Hammock Park, eat yellowtail snapper and drink island beer at the Red Fish Grill. But that channel seemed to be on the blink

He’d used his T-shirt to wrap the gash on Driscoll’s forehead, had cinched it tight, but the fabric was already soaked through with blood. Plenty of stitches to come, he thought. Probably a concussion, too.

No time for lollygagging, Deal. He pushed himself up, heading for the wheel.

One woman who had no child clinging to her was fighting at the far rail of the boat, screaming, while two of her companions struggled to hold her.

“For God’s sake,” Driscoll said. He was struggling up now, his movements awkward and drunken, though the beers he’d been carrying when he’d come up on deck would have been their first.

“Yeah,” Deal answered, making his way toward the scene. The woman wanted to dive back into the water, he didn’t have to know Spanish to understand that much. Nor to understand why.

He and Driscoll staggered through the bodies sprawled on the deck to the opposite rail, helped the two friends pull the distraught woman back.

“Is her son,” one of the woman cried to him in broken English. “Her son.”

Deal stared out over the empty water. “Where?”

The woman stared back at him, her face a mask of despair.

En la agua,” she said helplessly, waving her hand over the sea.

Driscoll was still out of it. “What happened? How’d they get out here, anyway?”

Deal shook his head, scrambled up onto the flying bridge, turned a quick circle to scan the water. The light was going fast now. No ships in sight, though maybe something out there, a smudge on the eastern horizon.

Then, closer to the Miss Miami, he saw it, a dim shadow, just below the surface. Maybe a bread bag slithering in the current. Maybe a chunk of cloth. Maybe the backside of a T-shirt, ballooned up with air.

He kicked off his deck shoes and dove.

He came up to get his bearings, found Driscoll at the bridge now, pointing, shouting, “Twenty feet. That way.”

Deal turned, began to stroke the water wildly.

He was still trying to force himself to calm—no good comes out of panic—when his hand came down with a smack on the boy’s back. He stopped, steadied himself, treading water, got the boy turned over, his puffy face under the crook of his chin, out of the water.

He glanced up to find Driscoll at the wheel of the Miss Miami, the blood-soaked shirt making him look like some kind of latter-day pirate. He eased the Miss Miami toward them and Deal saw the gunwale of the boat sidle up, saw all the grasping hands descend. The boy was lifted up, the inert form dragged over the rail, and then Deal had Driscoll’s meaty hand in his and followed.

The boy was sprawled inert on the deck, his burr-cut head lolled to the side, the mother, a thin woman with a ribboned scar down one cheek, screaming, trying to claw her way toward him. “Hold her back,” Deal commanded the women closest to her. No one had to translate.

He bent over the boy, checked his air passage, thrust his hand beneath his neck. He bent, pressed his lips to the boy’s cold and clammy flesh, began mouth-to-mouth.

“They didn’t wreck,” Driscoll was calling down as Deal gave his breath to the boy. “I thought maybe their boat sunk. It wasn’t that at all. Some sonofabitch put them off in the water.”

Deal left off his breathing, rose to push down on the boy’s chest. He watched water erupt from the boy’s lungs, glanced briefly up at Driscoll.

“Contract smugglers,” Driscoll said, nodding at the woman who’d been speaking halting English earlier. “The bastards saw a boat, thought it was the INS, they were going to get busted. They threw one life raft in the water, forced the rest of them off at gunpoint.”

“Where’s the raft?”

Driscoll barked something like a laugh, then winced, his hand going back to his head. He reached out, steadied himself against the rail. “It lasted about two minutes before it came apart.”

Deal was back at work on the boy now.  A familiar story,  he thought. But he’d heard worse. Contract smugglers who promised passage from Cuba, from Haiti—pick any agonized nation—the bastards collected their fees, carried their passengers out to sea, then simply shot them. Land of the brave, home of the free. Streets paved with gold. Dear Lord.

Wailing above him, wailing within. He pressed his lips to the lips of the boy and gave it all he could.

# # #

News item:   The Miami Herald  Friday, May 28:

Contractor Pulls Twenty from Sea

John Deal has contributed more than his share in  a career dedicated to the restoration of Dade County’s architectural treasures, but nothing compares to what he managed Thursday. Deal, son of legendary Miami builder Barton Deal, was out for a test run off Soldier Key late yesterday, on a boat that had belonged to his late father, when he came upon a group of Cuban refugees, women and children tossed overboard in the aftermath of an apparent contract smuggling operation gone sour.

Deal, 38, and his companion, former Metro Dade detective Vernon Driscoll, 51, were on their way into port at about 7:00 P M , aboard the Miss Miami Priss aging forty-five-foot Bayliner Deal had been restoring, when they spotted the group floating in the water about six miles off the coast.…

“…I just did what anyone else would do,” Deal said as he left Coast Guard headquarters in Coconut Grove, where the refugees were delivered. “Vernon Driscoll is just as responsible as I am for saving these people.”

Deal is the owner of DealCo Construction, a firm that helped to sculpt the Miami skyline in its heyday. DealCo was the principal contractor for the Dorado Beach Hotel and several other luxury hotels constructed on Miami Beach in the 1950s. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Barton Deal and several associates spearheaded the development of the Brickell Banking Center, as well as downtown’s First Federal Tower, still the tallest building in South Florida. Stung by a building glut and an economic downturn, the firm went into receivership in 1989, and Barton Deal committed suicide soon after.

The younger Deal fought to rebuild his father’s firm from the ashes, however. Following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, he turned the company’s efforts toward the rebuilding of several of the area’s architectural landmarks, including the Denby estate in South Dade and the former Vanderbilt family compound in Coconut Grove, LaGloria, now occupied by computer tycoon Terrence Terrell. “It was either that or build strip malls the rest of my life,” Deal said. “I didn’t have to think too long about it.”

As to what took him out on the water late yesterday: “The Miss Miami is about the only thing my father had left when he died. It had been sitting down at Monty Trainor’s marina for years, just rotting away. He loved the boat, and I finally decided it was time to put the old girl back in service. She’s been a money pit, but I’d have to say it was worth every penny I put in her now. I think my old man would agree.”


Chapter 1

Washington, D.C., June 6

“I’m thinking this was not such a good idea.” It was the man in the plaid Bermuda shorts and purple Georgetown University sweatshirt speaking.

He wasn’t looking at Salazar, who sat in stylish linens on the marble bench beside him. He had his gaze fixed instead upon the enormous, brightly lit visage of Abraham Lincoln that loomed in its niche nearby.

It was a balmy night, not quite ten, the early summer heat dissipated into invitation, even promise, the stars glittering overhead. Tourists still lolled about the Mall. Knots of schoolchildren roamed here and there, shepherded by their chaperones, chattering, shrieking, clambering up and down the ghostly steps of the monument.

“And why is that?” Salazar responded, his voice mild.

He turned, saw that Salazar was watching on a willowy girl in a plaid uniform jumper and knee-high socks standing several yards away. The girl, tall, serene, her features about to transform themselves from childish beauty into loveliness, had drifted apart from her group, an especially rowdy bunch, to stare up at the statue of Lincoln, intent.

“No one who works in this town ever goes sightseeing,” he said

“Yes,” Salazar said, his eyes still on the girl. “And that is why no one you know will see you here.”

The girl turned. Sixteen, possibly seventeen, going on ageless. She couldn’t have heard, but it seemed as if she had. Her glance flickered over him, held for a moment on Salazar. He had learned long ago that his was a face that did not attract the attention of women. He did all right at close quarters, but someone with Salazar’s dark allure, well…

There was some shift of expression there, a narrowing of the girl’s eyes, maybe…then she turned away, moving back toward her group with a toss of her long hair.

She knows what this man is, he found himself thinking. And still she would have him

“I have presented you with the solution to all your problems,” Salazar said. His eyes followed the knot of schoolchildren as they drifted away into the darkness. Finally he turned. “And now it is time for you to accept my proposal.”

He shook his head. He’d known it was coming. He cursed himself for even agreeing to meet Salazar this night. But there had been times when he’d needed Salazar, hadn’t there? He owed him the courtesy of a face-to-face, at least.

He drew a breath, met Salazar’s gaze. “I’ve thought about it, but we’ll take our chances by ourselves,” he said.

“And you will lose the election.” “You seem awfully certain.”

“I’ve read the same reports that you have, my friend. Malcolm Jesse is your analyst, not Senator Hollingsworth’s, is it not so?” He stared back, poker-faced. Malcolm Jesse had produced three sets of data: one for official release, with projections on the race so sunny he doubted even the dullest readers of the daily newspapers believed them; the second was a slightly less rosy set designed for unofficial “leakage” and intended to offset skepticism concerning the official report. The third set of figures told the truth, so far as Malcolm Jesse and his statistical gnomes could determine it. How Salazar had gained access to those carefully guarded figures, he had no idea.

“I have lived long because I make it my business to know such things,” Salazar said.

He turned away, trying to hide his discomfort. What the hell was it? He’d been at the right hand of the President for nearly four years, had traveled the halls of power another dozen before that. He’d bluffed foreign leaders, sold transparent lies to U.S. congressmen. But Angel Salazar, provocateur, mercenary, lifelong opportunist, could look inside his head and read the thoughts as clearly as if in screaming neon: “Find a way to take Florida or we’re dead!”

“President Sheldon cannot go hat in hand to Jorge Vas,” he said flatly. “The man makes the NRA look like a pack of flaming liberals.” Vas was the leader of the Cuban émigré community in the United States. His authority was unquestioned, as were his politics. And if Malcolm Jesse’s third set of figures was to be believed, Vas held the key votes; he alone had the power to deliver the state of Florida, and the election, into Frank Sheldon’s hands.

“If we proceed as I say, your president will not have to go hat in hand,” Salazar said. “We will stage our little incident, laying the blame at the feet of the international cabal of communism, and your president will issue a stinging rebuke of these actions, and Jorge Vas will have appropriate reason to lend his support as a result. It is perfect public theater and everyone can save the precious face.”

He heard the bitterness in Salazar’s intentional twisting of the phrase. There was a child’s shriek from somewhere in the darkness, an answering burst of laughter. He conjured up the face of the young girl whom he had watched, teetering on the cusp: on one side all the ideals chiseled in marble, on the other the truth of Salazar’s leer

“What’s in it for you, Salazar?” he asked.

Salazar raised his shoulders in the slightest of shrugs. “There is some expense involved, of course,” he said, pausing thoughtfully. “Let us say five million dollars.”

He stared. “You’re crazy.”

Salazar shrugged again. “One million now. The rest after the election.” He smiled. “Politics aside, I’d prefer the continuity. It’s always difficult, breaking in a new administration.”

He stifled the urge to laugh. “Just call up the Treasury, have them cut a check, is that it?”

Salazar’s smile never left him. “You have a war chest, my friend. This is war.”

He stood, fed up. Most of his adult life had been spent cutting deals, proclaiming an interest in spreading democracy, then sitting down with men like Salazar to do the opposite, all in the name of necessity. Two steps forward, one step back, that’s how the process was justified, but it more often seemed like one step forward, two steps back. Now Salazar wanted five million dollars to stage a “controlled” riot in Miami—like saying he wanted to pull the trigger on the A-bomb but cut off the reaction before the mushroom cloud appeared, wasn’t it?—so that these dances of deception could continue indefinitely.

“You’ve wasted my evening,” he said. “Even if it worked…” “It will work,” Salazar cut in.

“Forget it.” He turned abruptly, jostling a tourist who’d been backing toward them, camera pointed at the monument and his beaming, snowy-haired wife.

“Excuse me,” he muttered at the man, moving away across the Mall. He heard more shrieks from the darkness, no answer- ing laughter this time. There was a distant wail of a siren, but it seemed to be receding, not approaching.

He had taken half a dozen steps, no more, when he felt Salazar’s hand grip his arm. Thumb by his elbow, fingers in the soft flesh beneath his biceps. He started to turn, to order the man away, when he felt the incredible pain. Though he willed himself to keep going, he felt his breath constrict, his legs go leaden. If Salazar had not been holding him tightly, he would have pitched face-first against the pavement.

He saw a park policeman up ahead, the officer hurrying off toward the darkness and those unending shrieks. Call out for help, he thought, put an end to this insanity once and for all.

“You will help me,” Salazar repeated, his voice rasping, the man’s breath hot at his cheek. “We have too much history, my friend. And the world will learn everything, every last detail, every little secret, every agreement, every favor I have arranged at your behest. You, your president and his precious liberal’s façade, there is too much at risk here, do you understand me?”

He felt the pressure loosen at his arm then, and the pain disappeared, as if by magic. He could breathe again, and he stumbled forward, feeling his feet regain their rhythm. He felt a renewed burst of outrage, and though the park policeman had vanished into the darkness, this was something he could take care of on his own. He was an important man in this town, for God’s sake, even if he was, at this moment, wearing some idiot’s disguise of floppy shorts and purple sweatshirt, and he would not be treated this way by a subhuman creature who had been well paid for a few necessary favors. He would never agree to his plans in a million years.

He drew a breath and turned, ready to set Salazar straight once and for all. There was Lincoln gazing down from his perch, sirens and shrieks behind him, flashbulbs and nervous glances into the darkness…

He met Salazar’s eyes. “Goddammit,” he said, his chest heaving. He paused, drew another breath, felt the weariness rising like a tide until it seemed he would choke on it

“A controlled disturbance, you said. Break a couple of windows, fire a few shots in the air. That’s all…” He heard the words coming from his mouth as if from a stranger’s.

Salazar in turn was nodding, his smile playing about the corners of his mouth. “Do not concern yourself with details,” he said soothingly. “I am very good at what I do.”

He stared back, feeling exhausted, as if he’d just stumbled to the end of some marathon run. His head was leaden, and throbbing…and he was nodding in response, a motion almost casual, seeming quite apart from  will.

What awful cries from the darkness now

News item: Washington Times

 Heroes’ Ceremony Moves to Miami Washington,

June 24 (UPI)

— The White House announced today that the National

Medal of Valor ceremonies, a Rose Garden staple since the awards were conceived in 1963, would be held this year in Miami, Florida, during a campaign stopover by President Frank Sheldon. Earlier this week, Miami had been added to the list of cities the President would visit during his “Town Meeting” tour. Recipients of the so-called Local Hero awards are individuals nominated by various governmental and civic agencies around the country in recognition of “acts of valor and courage on behalf of others well beyond the norm.” It is a designation often referred to as the civilian equivalent of the military’s Medal of Honor.

“This is a further reflection of the President’s commitment to carrying government to the people, beyond the Beltway,” advisor John Groshner said during the weekly press briefing. “And Miami is the perfect site for this year’s Medal of Valor program. The city and its people have a long history of quiet heroism, having provided safe haven for untold thousands fleeing dictatorships and political oppression in Latin America for the entire last half of this century.”

Response was immediate from the camp of Senator Charles Hollingsworth, the President’s opponent in the forthcoming election. “It’s nothing more than an attempt to add luster to a failed campaign strategy,” a Hollingsworth aide said. “The President’s slipping so badly in the polls that he’d promise to move the White House itself if he thought it would get him the votes he needs.”

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