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Plea of insanity, p.37
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       Plea of Insanity, p.37

           Jilliane Hoffman
 

  She stayed where she was. ‘A motorcycle?’ she asked hesitantly.

  ‘I wear one. I’m no idiot,’ he said.

  ‘I … I don’t ride motorcycles,’ she stammered.

  He stared at her. ‘Why not?’

  She hesitated again. ‘My mother always told me not to. Told me I’d crack my head open.’ She anxiously rubbed her thumbs on the helmet’s smooth surface.

  He climbed on the bike and smiled at her. ‘Is your momma here now?’

  ‘Well, no,’ she said. Then added, ‘She’s dead.’

  ‘That sucks. I’m sorry,’ he replied and the smile instantly disappeared, replaced with somber silence. ‘Have you ever ridden one?’ he asked when she still hadn’t said anything.

  ‘No.’

  ‘There’s nothing to be worried about. You’re in good hands.’

  She looked about the lot. Her car was parked on the other side of the hotel.

  ‘You could always follow me, I suppose,’ he said with a shrug, starting the engine. The bike rumbled to life.

  She said nothing. But she didn’t move.

  ‘Come on, Julia,’ he said over the engine. ‘Get on the bike. You’ve had a real shitty day and mine hasn’t been much better. Let’s go for a ride.’ He held out his hand.

  She bit her lip, then nodded slowly and took it, climbing on the back. Good thing she’d picked a pantsuit today.

  ‘Ready?’

  She wrapped her arms around his waist and nodded, her head against his back, her eyes shut tight.

  ‘Hold on,’ he said. Then he hit the gas and the bike sped out of the Alibi with a loud roar, past the courthouse and the State Attorney’s Office, onto the ramp for 195 and out of Miami.

  78

  The wind whipped at the exposed skin on her hands and neck as they raced north. She finally opened her eyes and watched as cars and trucks moved beside them at seventy miles an hour – so close she could maybe reach out and touch them – but yet she couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the bike, which was probably a good thing. The noise and the fear prevented her from thinking.

  She wrapped her arms tighter around Lat’s waist and buried her face into his leather jacket. Her palms began to sweat, and she feared her fingers might slip through one another and cause her to lose her grip. She had a frightening but funny thought that she might blow off the back of the motorcycle like a cartoon character, and smack straight into the path of a semi, her body splayed like da Vinci’s Medicine Man across the front grill.

  Traffic was light this time of night. They sped over the flyover at the Golden Glades – the concrete clog of ramps and overpasses that connected Miami’s four main express-ways – and into Broward County. She had no idea where they were going, but as exits streaked by in blurs of green and white – including her own – she found that she didn’t really care anymore. The cold wind was invigorating; the deafening roar of the bike strangely soothing. She could feel the distance stretching between her and Rick – physically, emotionally, metaphorically – with every mile marker Lat passed and she didn’t want him to stop. She wanted him to keep going until she just couldn’t think anymore. Until Rick Bellido and her feelings for him eventually stretched into nothingness.

  At 1595, he headed east, toward signs for the Fort Lauder-dale/Hollywood International Airport and the beach. When the interstate finally ended, he turned north onto a quiet, almost deserted stretch of three-lane highway. Closed, no-name car rental agencies and auto repair shops lined the road that led toward downtown Fort Lauderdale. Just to the east, Julia spotted the smoke stacks of Port Everglades, where massive cruise ships from all around the world dropped anchor. She’d been to Fort Lauderdale countless times to see Nora and Jimmy, but strangely enough had never been this way before.

  As he pulled up to a light, the engine quieted a bit and Lat turned his head to look at her. ‘You okay back there?’

  She nodded. Her ears were ringing like she’d just stepped out of a rock concert.

  He reached down and took her hands in his. Her fingers felt like blocks of ice. ‘Cold?’

  She nodded again.

  He rubbed her fingers gently, and she felt a tingle run up her spine. When the light turned green, he moved her hands up underneath his jacket, pressing them back together up against his stomach, a signal for her to hold on again.

  Her fingers began to defrost and she could feel the rise and fall of his chest under them as he breathed, his strong muscles tightening against her hands through his shirt as he leaned his body into the bike. It was a strangely intimate moment. Lat and she had definitely developed a friendship over the past few months, but Julia suddenly felt embarrassed to be this close to him, her arms wrapped around his waist, her face buried against his back, smelling the leather of his jacket. Embarrassed to be feeling the way she was now feeling.

  As they got closer to downtown, fast-food restaurants and drug stores popped up next to Blockbusters and nail salons, and the traffic got a little heavier. He turned down a side street into what at first looked like a quiet, residential neighborhood, but a block or so up, in a small strip mall, Julia spotted a dive shop and a yacht uniform outfitter next to what looked like an unassuming restaurant. The Southport Raw Bar. Hand-painted sea creatures swam across nautical blue wainscoting.

  Lat pulled the bike past the cars that packed the parking lot, creating a spot on the sidewalk next to the front door. A sign above the entrance read Eat Fish – Live Longer. Eat Oysters – Love Longer. Eat Clams – Last Longer.

  She pulled off her helmet, as the sound of silence slowly filled her head again. ‘Where are we?’ she asked, looking around.

  ‘We’re getting you that drink,’ he replied, as he got off the bike. He helped her off as well and then watched with a grin as she walked carefully to the door. ‘You okay, Counselor?’ he asked.

  ‘Just a little stiff,’ she replied, with an exaggerated grimace. ‘Thanks for breaking me in slowly.’

  ‘I kept it under ninety,’ he replied with a laugh, holding the door.

  They’d taken maybe two steps inside when a tall guy in retro horn-rimmed glasses wearing an apron and sporting a mop of curly brown hair strode up and slapped Lat hard on the back.

  ‘John-John! What the hell are you doing up here?’

  ‘Hey, Buddy!’ Lat said to his friend, shaking his hand hard and slapping his back. ‘Just in the ’hood. Thought I’d bring you a new customer. Julia, this is Buddy. Buddy’s the owner of this fine establishment and the maker of the best chowder in town. Julia’s the prosecutor on a case I’m working.’

  ‘I thought you looked familiar,’ was all Buddy said, and for that Julia was relieved. He smiled and said with a laugh, ‘This guy’s gonna single-handedly double my business this year.’

  ‘Look at this,’ Lat said, gesturing around the packed restaurant and bar. TVs blared basketball and hockey games from every corner. ‘He’s turning them away. Speaking of which, you got a table?’

  ‘Are you kidding me?’ Buddy led them outside to a crowded waterfront patio. Boats bobbed up against the dock in every slip and the air smelled like fish and beer. Reggae music played somewhere. Two minutes later Lat and Julia were sitting at a plastic table nursing their own Budweisers.

  ‘A Harley, huh? I never figured you the type,’ Julia said after the waitress had taken their order of chowder and Old Bay shrimp.

  ‘There’s a life lesson for you, love. Never judge a book by its cover. Guys who ride Harleys aren’t all outlaws, you know.’

  ‘Obviously,’ she said with a smile. She sipped her beer and looked around the deck. ‘We sure are a long way from Kansas, Auntie Em. Do you live around here?’

  ‘Nah. My friend’s got a boat off one of the canals, and we take it out fishing sometimes. I got an apartment in Miami Beach, but I wish I was here. I like Fort Lauderdale. It’s quiet, more laid-back. I just don’t want to do the commute yet.’

  ‘The Beach is nice. MTV seems to like it. So does Paris Hilt
on,’ she said.

  ‘Just my point. I’m not a Puff Daddy guy. I don’t do hip-hop. I do Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I don’t own black ostrich pants. It’s getting a bit too funky on the beach for me.’

  ‘It’s just Diddy now. Puff is gone. And I think he took the P with him.’

  ‘There you go,’ Lat said with a shrug. Where do you live?’ he asked.

  ‘In Hollywood. At a complex off of Stirling and 95. I’d love to live near the beach, but it’s not in the budget. Not as a state employee. Even the Conquistador is a stretch.’

  ‘Hmmm. Maybe I should have asked you that before I rode you thirty miles away from your car. My bad. I figured you for a Gables girl.’

  She shook her head. ‘No, no. Thanks for …’ she hesitated, struggling to say just the right words but not much more, ‘… this.’ She looked around the restaurant with a smile. ‘This place is great.’ Colorful Budweiser and St Pauli Girl umbrellas dotted the tables, and in the center of each was a roll of paper towels, a few plastic well-used menus and an old Corona bottle with a single flower in it. ‘And with real flowers, too,’ she said absently, gently fingering the petals. ‘I love peonies. The cheap man’s rose, my mom used to say. But they’re still my favorite.’ She shook a thought out of her head. ‘And the ride was …’

  ‘Scary?’

  She smiled. ‘A little.’

  ‘I thought you were gonna take out a rib.’

  ‘Sorry,’ she said, turning red. ‘It was only scary at first, though. You’re a good driver.’

  ‘I’m glad I didn’t crack your head open. I would have hated to have proved your mother right about us outlaws. I’m sorry, by the way.’

  She shook her head, not understanding.

  ‘About your mom. I’m sorry. When did she die?’

  Julia swallowed the lump in her throat with a long sip of beer. ‘A long time ago,’ she said finally. ‘It’s been fifteen years.’ It was funny. She’d never even shared that information with Rick. Why had she told him her mother was dead?

  ‘What happened?’ he asked.

  His question took her by surprise. ‘It was an accident,’ she said softly. ‘Her and my father.’

  ‘You must have been young. Damn … I’m sorry.’

  ‘It’s okay. You didn’t do anything.’ She smiled again, but it was strained.

  ‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’

  ‘No,’ she answered quickly and took another sip of beer. ‘There’s just me.’ She suddenly remembered the biblical passage between Jesus and Simon Peter after the Last Supper at the Mount of Olives, before Judas’s betrayal. I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me. She looked away, feeling ashamed.

  ‘Who raised you then?’

  ‘My aunt.’ She blew out a short breath and tried to change the subject. ‘So are you from Florida?’

  ‘Is anybody actually from Florida? LA. I came to Miami because I learned Spanish in high school and I knew I didn’t want to work in the movies. My family is still out there. A mom and two brothers. One is great, the other not so great.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Drugs, gangs. Same house, three different results: a lawyer, a cop and a criminal. At least we’re all in related professions. And it definitely makes for some lively conversation around the Thanksgiving table.’ He shrugged again. ‘So how did you end up with Bellido?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ she said, taken off guard again. She looked out at the water. ‘That’s the funny thing. Six months later and I still don’t know.’

  ‘Six months. Who-hoo …’

  ‘Is that a long time?’

  ‘Not for me. I’ve had some go into the home stretch.’

  She knew what he was really saying without actually saying it and that same stab of pain jabbed her chest. The one the fast motorcycle ride had let her forget. ‘It was off and on. I wouldn’t say we were always together. I mean tonight shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’m sure, as you said, there were others.’ She closed her eyes and rubbed them. God she didn’t want to have this conversation. She didn’t want it to smart so much and she didn’t want everyone to have seen it coming. Everyone but her. ‘I guess I’m a fool. He was there whenever he wanted to be, and I was there whenever he wanted me to be. It was a destructive cycle. Now we have to finish this case and it’s only just begun.’

  ‘Do you love him?’

  ‘Jeesh,’ she said, looking at him. His blue eyes didn’t waver, so she finally looked away, at a piling on the dock. It was easy to see now how he could work a subject in his custody. ‘No. I can’t say I love him,’ she said quietly, twisting the edge of the paper towel that was on her lap. ‘I want to say I did, but I can’t. It never even came up between us. I guess that’s strange. But I wanted him to want me. I wanted him to love me, I guess. I wanted him to say it …’ Her voice drifted off and she paused, shaking her head. ‘Why am I telling you this? I need more liquor to justify telling you this stuff. A lot more.’ She finally looked back over at him. He was still watching her intently. ‘Tell me something, John Latarrino. Please. Something I can use against you later on if I need to. I am so embarrassed right now.’

  ‘I’m an insomniac and I don’t clean my bathroom.’

  She laughed. ‘That’s helpful. Tell me, why do you pace the floors at night, Detective?’ The waiter picked that moment to drop off two more beers, the bowls of chowder and platters of fried seafood, extra obviously sent over by Buddy.

  Lat turned and waved a thank-you to his friend who stood by the door. Then he looked back at Julia and smiled.

  ‘’Cause I haven’t found the right woman yet to keep me in bed.’

  Her cheeks went hot. ‘Oh,’ was all she said.

  He shrugged and finished his beer. ‘I was married once. Right after I came to homicide from robbery. It lasted a year. It never should have happened, but it did. Thankfully, there were no kids. We never had time to make any, which, according to her, was the root of my problem.’

  Was the divorce amicable?’

  ‘I’d say so. She wound up marrying her attorney. Now they have three kids. I got the dog. Lilly. An overweight, neurotic, cute golden retriever.’

  ‘Ouch. And you … now?’

  ‘Like I said, now I pace the floors at night. Just like you.’

  As Lat had promised, the food was great, but the company was better. They slipped into lighter conversation that over the course of the next two hours covered every topic from politics to the U2 sweep at the Grammy Awards. Buddy joined them for a drink and a Lat story before hopping off to another table. It had been a long while since Julia could actually remember laughing.

  An almost full moon slipped through the fronds of a palm tree, slicing ribbons of light across the black, almost motionless water. It was late. The restaurant had emptied out, and most of the boaters had left. Southport sat in the dead end of a long canal, but T-boning the other end was another waterway. Julia could see an elaborate yacht zigzag by in the distance, all lit up. ‘Is that the Atlantic?’ she asked.

  ‘Nope. That’s the Intracoastal,’ he answered. Then he looked at her. Were you close?’

  She stared at him. ‘What?’

  He picked the peony out of the Corona bottle and handed it to her. ‘To your mother. Were you close?’

  The tears started to spill before she could even think to hold them back.

  ‘Oh shit,’ Lat said, startled. He began pulling off sheets of paper towels and shoving them at her.

  She nodded, her face buried in a paper towel. She felt like such a moron. ‘I’m sorry. I’m okay.’

  He stood up and slapped money on the table. ‘I’m the one who should be sorry. I didn’t mean to get you upset.’ He looked around the restaurant then reached down and took her by the hand. ‘Come on, Julia. Let’s get you out of here.’

  79

  Neither of them said anything as he led her by the hand down the dock, around the back of the restaurant and
through the empty parking lot, presumably to avoid having to say goodbye to Buddy and explain why she was crying.

  ‘Put this on,’ he said, taking his jacket off as they came up to his bike. ‘I think it’s gotten colder.’

  She nodded, slipping her arms into the sleeves. She couldn’t look at him for fear she might break down once again.

  He got on the bike and offered her his hand. Without another word, she climbed on behind him, hesitantly wrapping her arms around his waist as he started it back up. The past two hours had been so good, but now everything felt awkward and clumsy. Out of place. Almost as if he’d read her mind, Lat reached down and took her hands once again in his own, rubbing them with his fingers before tucking them up under his shirt, like he had before. Only this time, it was his bare chest that she felt move under her fingertips. She closed her eyes and rested her head against his back, unsure what to make of her feelings again – or his – as he took off out of the parking lot.

  Instead of heading to 595 and back down to Miami, like she was sure he would, he passed the airport and turned east onto a deserted Dania Beach Blvd. At AIA – the two-lane beach road that ran down the entire east coast of Florida – he headed south toward Miami. It was well past midnight and the sleepy highway – normally packed with tourists and sun worshippers – was unusually empty and quiet, the beachfront restaurants and T-shirt shops all closed up for the night. If she’d been with anyone else, even Rick, she would have definitely felt a bit anxious – not knowing exactly where she was or where they were going – but with Lat she felt surprisingly relaxed. She thought of that crazy day in court months back – his words to her in those panic-stricken moments right before the competency hearing. Trust me.

  The same moon from Southport followed them as they drove along the beach, past seaside motels with flashing neon vacancy signs mixed in with the occasional high-rise Holiday Inn. She inhaled the salty sea air that she loved so much, watching the black waves break white against the shore. She could almost hear the waves calling her.

 
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