MICKEY J. CORRIGAN - ROMEOS AND JULES
Originally from Boston, Mickey J. Corrigan writes Florida noir with a dark humor. Project XX, a satirical novel about a school shooting, was released in 2017 by Salt Publishing in the UK. Newest release is What I Did for Love, a spoof of Lolita (Bloodhound Books, 2019). Kelsay Books recently published the poetry chapbook the disappearing self. Visit at www.mickeyjcorrigan.com.
Romeos and Jules
"Why don't you take it to the complaint bureau," Charlie tells Ben, who scowls and pushes his full plate aside.
"He's not eating the runny eggs? So what else is new?" Kenneth says between gulps of a blender drink in a scary shade of forest green. Kenneth is on another health kick. He'll keep it up until he just can't stand it anymore. Still, he's more fit than the rest of them—and he knows it.
"This is the complaint bureau," Moe says with a shake of his shiny brown head. "All we do is whine and complain. We should make a New Year's resolution for 1978: no more griping."
He polishes off a second Danish, wipes his thick lips with a paper napkin. Everything looks small in Moe's big paws. It's difficult to imagine him being gentle with his patients in the ER. But word around town is he's got the softest hands at LeHigh Beach Hospital.
Word's always around town. That's the kind of town they live in. Everybody knows everybody else's business in LHB, and there's not much else to do except talk about it. Which is why the Romeos meet at Farley's Diner on weekday mornings. To tease one another and catch up on the latest news in their little corner of coastal Florida.
They call themselves the Romeos, but the term is actually R.O. M. E. O., which stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out. An acronym that encourages old guys to socialize with other old guys. But Kenneth isn't old or retired. He's 54 and, most days, feels like a 20-year-old. He's a distance runner, and he's launched a new computer repair business. Everyone is getting into computers, nobody knows how to fix them. Moe works too, as an emergency room physician. He's in his late 50s with an ex and a clutch of pre-college age kids to support. Charlie and Ben are actually retired. A former English teacher, Ben hasn't worked in decades. Charlie left an executive position at a big PR firm in Tampa, and that was a good eight years ago.
Still, the four friends like to refer to themselves as the Romeos. Makes them laugh. If only, is what they think. Remember when, is what they often discuss over eggs not cooked to perfection.
"We have reason to complain," Ben says obliquely. "Life goes downhill at a certain point, then pools in the abyss."
The others look at one another, raising eyebrows and shrugging. This is typical Ben. He's their dark prophet, and lately his observations have seemed somewhat confused. His thinking has muddied since his wife of sixty years passed away two months earlier. Charlie thinks Ben might have early Alzheimer's. Charlie thinks almost everyone over 50 might have dementia. He listens carefully to what they say, analyzing the content for symptoms of disordered thinking.
This bothers the others, who are sharp enough to know Charlie is vetting them and old enough to worry about his findings.
Jules comes by the booth with two pots of coffee: decaf and high-test. She refills their cups, smiling warmly at each of the men, laughing at their lame jokes. They are all in love with Jules. Romeos and Jules, is what they tell each other after she walks away.
They say this every morning. They repeat it five days a week, and get a kick out of it every time.
Jules is a bright candle in their lives. They think she's beautiful and sweet and a good human being with some considerable obstacles to surmount. Like being uneducated, pregnant at a young age and a single mother. The men feel protective, concerned for her welfare. They want to ensure that she's okay. They want her to be properly provided for. By a decent young man, is what they think. A young man with means. A nice guy. Unlike whoever it was that deserted the poor girl, left her with a kid to raise by herself.
"What about that nephew of yours?" Moe says to Kenneth after Jules glides away. "Isn't he in insurance?"
Kenneth finishes his suspicious looking drink with a loud slurp, sets his tall glass on the Formica table between them. "He's not interested. Never has a girlfriend, never talks about it."
"How old is he?" Moe asks with a shake of his head. "If he's young and has no love life, he may be a closet fruit."
Ben looks up from toying with a dish of canned peaches. He's lost weight since his wife passed, the meat of his body disappearing and the bones beginning to jut. "Closet fruit?" he asks, his narrow face scrunched. His brow is a map of the dried-up Everglades, pitted and lined with empty creek beds. "Like what, kumquats?"
The other men laugh.
Charlie says, "We must be fruity too, then. Nobody here's gettin' any."
"Yeah, but we like women," Moe explains. "So we're just losers."
Charlie nods. "That makes me feel much better, thanks."
Kenneth preens a little. He could get himself a woman if he wanted, at least that's what he likes to think. Once he's a hundred percent over his wife's abandonment, then he will replace her. Just not yet. "Anyway," he says, "Norton's out. So anybody got another suggestion?"
Charlie says to Moe, "What about the hospital? It's gotta be crawling with available men. Doctors, technicians, whatever."
His eyes drift upward to refocus over Moe's head. Moe turns around to look.
The mayor and his bedraggled entourage have made an entrance.
"Uh oh. Here comes trouble," Kenneth says, reaching for his wallet. "I've got an important telephone call scheduled for this morning so I'm gonna run."
Charlie sneers. "Of course you do. And coincidentally, you're ditching before Mayor Doc pins us here with his unceasing bullshit. You're a chickenshit, Kenneth."
Kenneth snorts. "Later, men."
Moe stands up. "I'm going too. Same reason. Do not wish to tolerate that man's baloney. He's a waste of my precious time." He tosses a twenty on the table, says, "Got you covered, Ben. Tip her good."
Jules always gets thirty percent. More sometimes. The men want to help her out. She's only a kid, and her baby's screwed up. Sick with something or other. The men have not seen the child, but they've heard about her from other folks who have. The baby is pale. Not walking or talking. Not growing properly or developing normally. Very sad.
The two men hustle to the front door of the diner, slipping past the mayor. He's busy chatting up a table of elderly women. His minions are sitting in the booth by the door. They ignore Kenneth and Moe, bury their faces behind plastic-coated menus.
"Those bastards," Charlie says in a low voice. "Ducking out so we have to deal with King Midas."
Ben smiles wryly. "Everything he touches turns to shit."
They both snicker.
Jules arrives at their table to remove dirty dishes and offer more smiles. "Ben! You barely touched the special. Can I get you something else instead? French toast? A home-baked blueberry muffin?"
Ben looks up into the wide green eyes of his favorite female. His mind darts about. You can get me my wife back. My passion for life. I have lost my passion. But why should I need it since what is left must be adulterated? "No thanks, sweetheart," he says. "I guess I'm just not hungry today."
Or any day, Charlie thinks. The cancer diagnosis was a shock, but Ben's wife didn't linger. Her rapid demise and quick death hit poor Ben like a slug to the solar plexus. He went down for the count, still isn't back up. His wife was the hearty one, a big lady, a fine Italian woman and a terrific cook. Ben had once been overweight with thick arms and an ample gut, but now the folds of skin hang off the bones in pasty drapes.
Charlie reaches for Ben's plate. "Can't let this go to waste."
Ben mutters, "Damnation. Here he comes."
Jules stands her ground as the mayor approaches the table. Charlie shovels in the cold eggs, waiting for the pitch that's sure to rain bullshit on his morning ritual of a nice breakfast, time spent appreciating a beautiful young waitress, and a few laughs with his closest friends.
"Bennett, Charles. How are you men on this beautiful morning?" the mayor asks rhetorically, before starting in on what he's really there to say. He ignores Jules, who is clearing the table of Moe and Kenneth's leavings. "We're having a special session on Friday evening and I want both you guys to attend. Some serious irregularities in the LHBPD have been brought to my attention and I'm thinking of doing something as soon as possible to improve the situation. We can save some serious money if we change our security services."
In reality, Mayor Doc has a personal issue with the local police. The issue is that the city cops have an eye on him. In fact, they are consistently called out to investigate complaints stemming from questionable activities at Mayor Doc's waterfront estate. Complaints from neighboring townsfolk about wild parties, inebriated drivers, loud screaming matches. Accusations of drug use, harboring of criminals, possible trafficking, violent domestic squabbles.
He's a winner, their King Midas.
Charlie finishes Ben's breakfast, pushes the plate to the middle of the table, and looks up. The mayor is dressed in his usual garb: a rumpled Hawaiian shirt, baggy Bermuda shorts, dirty flip-flops. His long gray hair is uncombed, his eyes red-rimmed and glassy.
Charlie says, "Doc, listen. You can't abolish the police department. We need an organized force. Even in a town this small, the local cops prevent people from going in the wrong direction. The residents of LeHigh Beach want public security. There are crimes being committed here, just like in any other small town in America. People want to be able to call for help."
The mayor frowns. King Midas doesn't like to explain his ideas, his twisted views on the law, his own questionable thinking and behavior. He prefers his subjects simply bow to his insanity.
Someone at the counter drops a fork on the tile floor. The clatter distracts him, his eyes bulgy, his demeanor jumping bean nervous. Then he shifts his attention again, returns to wheedling and dissembling.
"No real crime in our town, Charles. Just the occasional teenager drinking a little too much beer. Nothing a private security team can't handle. Think of the money we'll save if we rely on the county sheriff's office to pursue any serious issues." He licks his thin lips. "We could save enough money to build that addition to the library you been squawking about at the town meetings."
Charlie shakes his head. This is crazy talk. The steady supply of marijuana and other drugs smuggled into Florida from Latin America has increased the crime rate in the state to historic levels. Dealing and dabbling, as well as a host of related illegalities, have all soared in LeHigh Beach since this lunatic slid into the mayor's seat. Which he managed to do with a paper-thin margin following a suspicious election turnout in which a number of people moved to town, voted, then disappeared.
Apparently, actual residents voted for him too. Their thinking: he's a professional because he worked as a physician, a dermatologist. People in LeHigh Beach, they like to be bossed around by professionals. And Doc's a professional, albeit a disgraced and de-licensed one.
His mayoring is a lot like his doctoring once was: shoddy until it veers into dangerous. Charlie loves LeHigh Beach. He grew up here, he'll surely die here. And he sure as shit isn't going to let this drug-addled narcissist ruin his town like he'd just ruined breakfast.
Charlie pulls his wallet from his jeans pocket and takes out a twenty. Jules is there, refilling coffee cups. She rolls her eyes at Charlie. He's pretty sure a girl like her wouldn't feel safe living in a town like theirs without a solid police force.
"Can I get you fellas anything else today?" she asks, her smile sweet and warm as cinnamon toast.
Charlie says, "Yes, you can get the mayor to take his ridiculous proposal and move it away from our breakfast table."
Jules doesn't respond but he can see the laughter in her sparkling eyes.
Doc pouts. "Ridiculous? This is fiscal responsibility, man. Come to the meeting. We're going to take a vote next month on this and if the town sides with me, which they will, you'll have to eat your words."
He flip-flops to the next table of retirees, greeting each of the elderly people by name before hectoring them. Jules takes the Romeos' check to the cash register.
Charlie wipes the coffee from his lips and tosses the napkin on the table. "That man is deranged. Demented. That he's in a position of authority means the whole world's gone mad," he says to Ben. "A defrocked doctor who basically murdered a child with a botched medical procedure to remove a strawberry mark on her leg comes to my town to hide from the world. He buys a waterfront mansion, where he soaks himself in a hot tub full of prostitutes and booze, housing all sorts of shady characters and carrying on so much the local cops are called out dozens of times. Then he gets elected mayor. Yes, elected! After which, from up on his lofty throne, he denounces the people in charge of crime prevention who he feels have unfairly targeted him. And my town, a place consisting mostly of good, quiet, decent people, lets him get away with it."
"Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season," Ben says.
Charlie blinks. He's certain his friend is on the verge of needing nursing services.
Ben notices the steam coming out of Charlie's ears. He stops pondering the irreversible course of aging and the obscure wisdom of T.S. Eliot and says, "We should do something to stop him."
Ben finds himself reaching for an untouched English muffin half. He butters it generously, then munches slowly. His wife loved LeHigh Beach. He'd lived with her in their small craftsman-style home a few blocks from Farley's for almost fifty years. They'd raised their four children there, played with their grandchildren in the pretty parks and on the white sand beaches. Paulina had been disgusted with the mayor's lifestyle, his tawdry shenanigans and crude remarks. She would be horrified by the latest move the depraved mayor was threatening to make.
He polishes off the crunchy muffin, which tastes delicious, and leans forward, beckoning Charlie to come closer. He whispers, "Let's entrap the mayor and get him arrested before he can abolish the PD."
Charlie says sotto voice, "For what? Living like a wayward teenager? If the cops can't get him on anything, how're we gonna stop him?"
Ben's eyes sparkle. "We'll set him up. There are rumors. Let's check them out. If they're true, we could get him for practicing medicine without a license." He smiles slyly, his sleepy face enlivened with a repressed excitement.
Charlie sits back in the red vinyl booth, his brain on fire. The idea is brilliant. Maybe Ben doesn't have dementia. Maybe the man's a genius.
Ben reaches for the other half of the English muffin, still smiling.
Before she leaves the diner, Jules sits in the ladies room single stall and counts her tips. As usual, the Romeos have rescued her from another long night of not-so-quiet desperation. She's got just enough money to make it through.
She changes into jean shorts and a rumpled tee, then stuffs her uniform in her backpack, cramming the side pockets with the tip cash. Pack slung over one narrow shoulder, she leaves the diner and walks the two miles to her apartment, thinking about how good a cold can of beer will taste. Her legs are tired and her back hurts. She needs to relax.
The baby greets her at the screen door, where she stands guard like a little brown puppy waiting for her master to return. Her diaper is sodden and she has a splash of colorful Fruit Loop vomit down the front of her undershirt.
Jules picks her up. "Where's that no good pretend daddy of yours?"
The baby looks at her in that cockeyed way she has, says nothing. The baby doesn't talk yet, even though she's going on three.
"PU, babe, you stink," Jules says, and the girl giggles. Jules is pretty sure the kid knows what's what, she just isn't saying.
Jules walks them through the living room, which is a mess of empty liquor bottles and full ashtrays, a small color TV blaring the afternoon soaps. Jujube is asleep on the couch. Jules kicks him as she passes by, but he just grunts, then continues his nod.
When Charles leaves the diner, walking ahead of Ben and out into the blazing sunlight, he's limping a little. His legs sometimes get stiff from sitting in those damn booths. The right one especially. He does a few knee bends, works the muscles in his thighs.
Ben says, "That's good. Keep it up. We can use that."
"What the hell are you talking about," Charlie asks, adjusting his Foster Grant sunglasses and putting a pale blue fishing hat on his balding head. The sun is violently bright and it's barely 9 a.m. "Keep what up?"
"The fake limp, the wincing in pain. It's perfect. He's watching you. See?"
Ben tilts his head to the side, indicating Charlie should look through the glass door to the interior of the diner. When he does, he sees the mayor standing by a table of city workers in boots and ball caps. Mayor Doc is looking out at them, so Charlie waves.
Ben says, "You claim you've got a leg problem, it's been bothering you for a while now. Nobody at the hospital can help you for whatever reason. They can't find the problem with an X-ray, something like that. So you decide to go out to the house to see Mayor Doc. We'll bring one of those little tape recorders you can fit in your pocket. Then, when the mayor gives you medical advice, we have it on tape. We can take it to the cops."
They start walking toward Ben's house. Charlie lives in the other direction, but these days he walks Ben home. Makes sure his older friend arrives safely.
Charlie thinks about the idea, which he kind of likes, but realizes it won't work. "Not admissible in court unless the cops have a warrant. But maybe we can talk to Lieutenant Duress. He might be able to set it up for us."
They change direction and wait for the walk sign before crossing Main Street, which is a two lane road with very little traffic. A young woman jogs by in pink running shorts and blue sneakers. The men watch her pass.
Ben says, "You think he'll help us? Duress can be a real hardass."
Charlie shrugs. "True. But the special session is coming up. He'll need to move fast before King Midas convinces the dummies in town to dump the police force and we're all at his mercy."
They cross the street and head south toward the police headquarters, a squat brick office building shared by the fire department and the mayor's office. Which the mayor rarely occupies. He's either holding court in Farley's, drinking beers at Brew's Irish Pub, or doing whatever he does with his scoundrel friends at his waterfront mansion. Still, the two men speed up, hoping to get in and out of Duress' office quickly without being spotted by Mayor Doc.
Sally looks up when the door chimes dingle. She greets the two men warmly and calls her boss on the inter-office phone. Ben compliments her new hairdo, a fluffy bouffant twenty years out of style, and Charlie ask her who sent the white roses on her desk. Both men are unstoppable flirts, but Sally is around their age and she likes it. With the younger women, the men tread more carefully. Nobody wants to be called a dirty old man.
Duress comes out to get them, leading them down the narrow hallway to his office at the back. Commendations and framed photos of the chief with previous mayors, Florida senators and congressmen, adorn the faded gray walls. Duress sits behind a cluttered desk, indicates two beat-up chairs on the other side. "What can I do for you boys?" he asks.
Duress has been LHB chief of police for ten years. His job was an easy one until the marijuana bales began to wash up onshore. Then cocaine invaded the town. Now he has to deal with burglaries and robberies, purse snatchings and prostitution, overdoses and youth gangs. Life in their small hamlet is not the same since so many folks are high, some coked out of their minds.
"You hear the mayor scheduled his special session for Friday?" Charlie asks, crossing his legs and leaning forward. Ben sits quietly beside him. "We don't want to see him get his way, Dan."
Duress sighs heavily. He looks tired, the bags under his eyes shiny and dark. "I really don't have the time for his brand of nonsense," he says with a frown. "We had a teenager OD last night. Cocaine. Mother found her fourteen-year-old daughter out on the lawn, this close to gone. It just doesn't stop." He wipes his brow with a heavy hand. Duress was a Marine in Nam, now he's fighting another war.
Charlie sighs. "This is the point. This town needs you. What we don't need is a megalomaniacal kook in charge. We need to get rid of the mayor."
Duress leans back in his office chair. He's trim, thickly muscled. Spends time at Buster Gold's gym. "I'm with you there, Charlie. We've been out to his place on the water for a variety of reasons but never had adequate cause to arrest the man. We'd need probable cause."
Ben pipes up. "What about practicing medicine without a license?"
Lieutenant Duress tilts his head to the side, thinking. He'd been pretty sure the old guy was on his way to a senior home for failing brain power. But instead, the fellow has come up with a workable possibility. He smiles, encouraging them to explain.
Ben and Charlie take turns talking while the lieutenant's smile grows.
The diner is extra busy today and Jules is having a harder time than usual. This is because she's sleep deprived. The baby kept her up all night, tossing in the bed they share with Jujube. Something is seriously wrong with the kid and they should take her to see a specialist pronto, but it's so hard to find the time. Plus, they can't afford it. They're not on Medicaid or any other kind of government handout. They're trying to stay off the books.
That's what Jujube calls it, staying off the books.
She's taken the baby to see Mayor Doc. He says not to worry, the kid will grow out of it. Jules wants to believe him so she does.
With a heavy sigh, Jules straightens her shoulders. She brightens her megawatt smile and heads over to wait on the Romeos. She'll need them to be extra generous today. She plans to stop at the grocery store after work. They're out of beer. Her head hurts and her mouth is like sand. She can't wait until her shift ends, but she'll have to.
The men are huddled together talking in low voices like they're plotting something. From what she's overheard lately, their secret plans have to do with the mayor, who is an extremely unpopular person in certain circles.
But not in hers.
"Mornin', guys," she says in her peppy waitress voice. "I've got fresh coffee and steamin' hot decaf. The blender drink of the day is beet-eggplant. And we have Farley's famous cheese grits on the menu again!"
Charlie is watching the door. He's not in the mood to deal with the mayor. Not today, not while the plan is still in the early stages. He wants to be game ready when he next greets the dirty doc.
Moe is wolfing down a crispy waffle. "You guys are outta your minds," he says, mopping syrup off his chin. "Stone cold crazy."
Kenneth sips a tall drink in an ugly shade of purple that looks like beets mixed with eggplant. In fact, it is beets mixed with eggplant. "I think it's a great idea."
Ben says, "Virtues are forced upon us by our impudent crimes." Then he dives into his fried eggs, his lips curved in glee. The others haven't seen him this lively since before his wife's cancer diagnosis.
Kenneth says, "I volunteer to go in. I can be the undercover. I'm in the best shape of all of us, man, so, if he diagnoses anything with me? Boom." He snaps his fingers. "An obvious misdiagnosis. Cuz I'm in the best shape of my life."
Jules has just stopped by to top off their coffee mugs. "You are in good shape," she says to Kenneth, who beams.
After she departs, Charlie leans in. "Now don't you go messing where a man in his 50s shouldn't be messing. She's your daughter's age, man."
Kenneth slams a hand down on the table, which bounces. Plates and cups jump, coffee spilling. "Back off, buddy boy," he says. "Let me enjoy what's left of my ego." Kenneth's wife left him for a younger man. Her personal trainer. The story's so trite it hurts to recount it. "I have some dignity left, you know," he adds, his lean face reflecting the kind of pain all men understand.
Charlie nods, then sits back in the booth. He shouldn't have said anything, but it's important to him that Jules is off limits to playboys. What that girl needs is a life partner. A devoted young man who will…
"It won't matter if he misdiagnoses or diagnoses accurately," Moe says, mopping up coffee. "Long as he prescribes medical treatment of any kind, he's breaking the law. Then they can go in with a warrant, see what other kinds of laws he's been ignoring."
Kenneth says, "There's Lala. Her very presence indicates the likelihood of criminal acts. She's a walking talking felony conviction."
Lala is Laura Lasalle, the mayor's girlfriend. She's a woman with a dark past—and present, most likely. She's been arrested numerous times for numerous offenses. She's spent time in the women's penitentiary at Starke. Her area of expertise is fraud, but she's also tried her luck at prostitution, cat burglary, drug peddling, and importing exotic animals for shady millionaires. She's sizzling hot, though. All the guys agree on that. A blaze of fire-engine red hair with café au lait skin and an hourglass figure. A very sexy lady, but with a heart made of black tar.
"Better to go see the Doc when his chiquita isn't around," Moe offers. "She might figure out what we're up to. I think she's the brains of the operation."
Kenneth snorts. "There are no brains of the operation. Which is why we're going in. Because we got the brains and we gonna bring those bastards down," he says, running a finger across his throat, then holding out a fist.
The four men bump fists.
Kenneth stands up, picks up the check. "Tip her good," he reminds the others.
Needlessly. They've all got their hands in their wallets, fishing for fives.
When Jules gets home, Jujube is standing by the screen door. He's holding the baby like you would a football. His beard is shaggy, his dreads slick with grease. "She been pukin' all day. And turdin'," he says, trading the pale, limp child for Jules's twelve-pack of Budweiser. "You take her to the ER and we just skip on the bill," he advises.
Jules is furious. Always, always, she has to take care of everything! Work all day, care for a sick kid all night! What about her own needs? Huh? What about that?
But she doesn't say this. Jujube can be touchy. Man is unpredictable. She's lucky he stays home with her kid. If he didn't, her shitty waitress pay wouldn't cover a babysitter plus their expenses.
She carries the baby into the bedroom. Damn, if she doesn't need a break. She wants to lie on the cool tile floor and drink at least two beers before she goes next door. After that, when she's set up, well, then maybe she'll take the baby to the ER.
She lies down with the baby on the king-size mattress. The baby is asleep within a few minutes, and Jules tiptoes out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Kenneth asks around at the gym. Who can I see about this frigging pain in my knee and not have to spend half a day sitting on my arse at LHBH? As the Romeos had hoped, the guys at the gym tell Kenneth about Mayor Doc. One of the trainers says he sends people to Mayor Doc's house all the time. "You just knock on the front door. Tell whoever answers you come from Gold's. If he's around, the Doc'll help you out."
Kenneth says cool, sounds easy enough.
He drives his cream-colored MGB west of town. Then he heads south, cruising past the luxury cul-de-sac neighborhoods along the Gulf, each with their own docks and mini-marinas. The yachts stretch and gleam. He's going to live here someday, but not as soon as he'd like. Alimony is gonna slow that jump up. He'd like to stop brooding about losing his wife to a Schwarzenegger wannabe, he'd like to start dating instead of mooning over his bad luck. But he doesn't dare. He tends to fall fast and can't afford another woman at the moment. Life without ain't so bad. At least it's not nearly as complicated.
The top is down and the wind cools what the afternoon sun heats. Kenneth's excited about participating in the plan to remove the despot mayor. It feels good to be doing something for others instead of moping about his own shit.
He turns down the mayor's street and parks in front of the house. There are only three homes on the spacious cul-de-sac and they're all huge, sprawling eyesores with Spanish tile roofs and white columns and porticoes. At the end of the dead end road lies the flat blue Gulf, simmering in the late afternoon sunlight. You can see the outline of tall buildings, the city of Tampa, in the distance.
Kenneth stares up at the house. Three stories of salmon-hued Mediterranean excess with winding wrought-iron staircases covered in explosions of purple and pink bougainvillea. On the west side there's a four-car garage with an apartment overhead. Rumor about town is the mayor rents to shady tenants who use the space for shady purposes. When the cops aren't being called out to Mayor Doc's, they're being summoned to deal with problems at his guest apartment.
Kenneth tucks the mini-recorder in his shorts pocket and climbs out of his car. If you overlook the weedy grass, the peeling paint, and all the missing tile on the roof, the place is pretty luxe. But somebody hasn't been keeping up with home maintenance, creating an ambiance of garish squalor.
Activating the recorder, Kenneth walks up the steps to the massive oak door and steadies himself. Then he rings the doorbell.
Lala answers. She's wearing a leopard skin bra and a matching wrap skirt. Her bright red hair is swept up in a loose bun. She looks like Fred Flintstone's wife if Wilma got a deep tan and posed for Playboy.
Kenneth stammers. He's going to sound like an idiot on the tape.
Lala giggles. "You here to see the mayor?" she asks, stepping back to allow him inside.
He says, "Yes, ma'am. About an injury. Gold's sent me."
He's sweating. He nearly trips over the welcome mat, then blushes when she laughs in a friendly manner.
"Careful now. You don't want to make your injury worse." Her caramel eyes twinkle.
And suddenly he gets it. This is about drugs. The mayor's running them out of his house. Or this tasty dish is running them, and Mayor Doc's enabling her.
Kenneth plays along. He limps a little to make his point, thinking he should've dragged one leg when he walked up to the house. In case they had security cameras recording his approach.
But maybe they just don't care.
Lala tells him to follow her to the Doc's office, so he does. The living area they pass through has a sky-high ceiling, must be forty feet, with a giant chandelier raining crystal teardrops. The sectional couches match Lala's animal print getup. He wonders if she served as interior decorator.
He kicks himself for being tongue-tied but, well, what can he say to a woman like that? In a place like this? Not much.
They walk down a carpeted hall adorned with framed photos in black and white. All the photos are of wild animals. Tigers. Cougars. Elephants. Grizzlies. Wolves.
Lala stops at a door and knocks.
Kenneth recognizes the mayor's gruff voice.
Lala says, "There's a patient here to see you. From Gold's."
Kenneth has it on tape: patient.
The mayor groans, grumbles. Then the door swings open.
Kenneth is thinking about how it's a Tuesday afternoon at 4 o'clock. So why is the mayor of LeHigh Beach dressed in baby blue silk pajamas?
"Oh. Kenneth," the mayor says with a heavy lidded smile. "Come in."
Lala says, "I'll leave you boys to it." And she sashays off.
Both men watch her go.
"My nurse," Mayor Doc says. "She's a real peach."
Kenneth doesn't know what to say to that.
The breakfast crowd is unruly and Jules is not in the mood for hassles. Being a waitress really sucks because you have to smile through whatever crap people dish out or you won't make a living wage. No smiles, no tips—no matter how horrible the customers are.
Wow, she's really feeling sorry for herself today, she thinks as she brews an extra urn of hi-test coffee. Maybe because she feels guilty about the baby. Who slept like a rock all night but pooped her diaper real bad and didn't even wake up. Which is strange and a bit scary. Jules needs to do something about the kid but she needs the daily income more.
Pasting on her sweet Southern gal smile, she takes the fresh coffee pot over to the Romeos' table, and overhears what the men are up to.
Still, she keeps her innocent expression in place while she takes their orders. But even before she's left the table, a brilliant seed of an idea has planted itself in the dry soil of her desperate mind.
Kenneth recounts what happened.
"He actually gave you pills?" Charlie asks. "Let's see."
Kenneth looks around, then places the plastic pill container on the center of the table, next to the maple syrup. The men lean forward. The bottle is the standard amber plastic with a white cap, but there's no label.
Moe says, "May I?" When Kenneth nods, Moe takes the little bottle and shakes a few pills into one large hand. "Percodan," he says in a soft voice.
The men look at one another. Their mayor is practicing medicine without a license. He's also handing out prescription medication. To anybody who wants it. Even if they don't ask for it. Because Kenneth didn't.
We got him, they all think.
Jules arrives with her tray piled high. Kenneth is having strawberry pancakes today. Jules grins at him when she passes him the heaping plate of starch. He blushes.
Moe slips the pill bottle into his pants pocket. They wait until Jules has finished serving them and departed before resuming their conversation.
"I have the entire thing recorded on this tiny tape," Kenneth says, showing it to them. It's the size of a matchbook. Smaller. "So do we take it to the cops?"
Charlie says, "I don't think so. Better to wait so you can go back again. Find out if he's going to want to sell you some on the second visit. I mean, giving a friend your unused pills isn't going to result in much of a punishment."
Ben is working on a cheddar cheese omelet. No complaints today. "A wilderness of mirrors," he says. Then, "How many pills in that bottle?"
Moe takes a look. "Eight. So Kenneth can act like any other drug addict, and go back in a few days. See what happens when he returns for more."
The men agree, but Kenneth is uncomfortable. He can only finish one of the thick pancakes. He wishes he'd ordered a blender drink. The heavy food sits in his gut like a balled fist.
When the mayor and his motley court arrive at the diner, Moe slides the pill bottle across the table and Kenneth snatches it, tucks it back in his shorts' pocket with the miniature tape recording.
Jules comes by with coffee but the men say no, thanks, it's time to go.
On the way out, Kenneth stops to chat with the mayor but the man simply nods, turns back to a table of high school teachers getting stoked for the first class of the day. "All you girls need to come to the special session on Friday. With the money this city saves on useless police salaries, we can boost teacher pay," he says to the three middle-aged women. "You're helping to insure the future of this town, after all."
Meanwhile, the mayor is helping to hook the townsfolk on addictive drugs? Is that his best policy for the future of LeHigh Beach, Kenneth wonders.
Outside the diner, the men discuss next steps, then disperse.
When her shift ends, Jules changes into her jean shorts and walks home. But she stops off at the neighbor's house and rings the bell. She's not sure what she'll say, but what she knows might be worth something to someone. She's willing to see if that's the case.
Nobody answers the door so she goes home, feeling depressed. As soon as she walks in, Jujube lights into her. What she has to do and when. The baby this, their money situation that.
Fuck him, he don't work!
She takes the listless kid into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Kenneth brings Charlie along this time. He doesn't want to go alone. The mayor is old and weak and seems half-gonzo, and Lala is certainly no threat, but for some reason Kenneth is leery of carrying out the next espionage trip on his own.
Charlie says he thinks it's better to have a witness anyway. Kenneth isn't sure if his friend is just saying that to help him save face, but he welcomes Charlie aboard. "We can say you're my driver, my knee's so bad," he says on the way to the mayor's.
Charlie says that sounds fair. Witness. Driver. An extra set of eyes and ears.
They park in front of the massive house and climb out of Charlie's old Mercedes. Kenneth limps up the walkway with Charlie behind him.
Kenneth turns on the recorder when Lala answers the door. She smiles in her flirty way and invites them inside, stepping back with one hand on a curvaceous hip. Today her lustrous hair is down and it tumbles in a waterfall of Red Hots-colored curls to her shoulders, which are shapely and bare. She's wearing a tiger-striped slip and furry slippers with leopard spots.
Charlie feels like growling at her but suppresses the urge. Wouldn't sound good on the tape.
"Looks like your poor knee's gettin' worse, baby. You weren't limpin' this bad last time you came by," she says to Kenneth with an arch smile.
Kenneth nods in agreement, wincing blatantly. "Okay if my friend waits with me? He's driving me, now that I can't bend the knee so good." He doesn't look her in the eye when he lies, and he feels like a schmuck for that.
She shrugs. "Not my house. I'll tell the Doc you're here."
She saunters off, slowly, allowing the men adequate time to appreciate her backside. Which they do, giving one another a quick eyebrow raise of agreement: very hot.
The two men are left in the foyer, which has no seating but yards of white marble flooring. They wander into the sunlit living room with its sunken sitting area and half-circle mahogany bar. Kenneth observes the mess: empty beer bottles, whiskey glasses dripping pools of melted ice, lipstick-smeared cocktail glasses, pizza boxes and plastic cups, overflowing ashtrays. He notices a small pile of white powder on a hand mirror, so he takes out a pocket camera and snaps a photo.
Charlie whispers, "Careful. Security cameras."
Kenneth freezes. What if a beefy security guard saw him take the picture and comes out of the tech room to rough him up, take his camera away? He slips it back in the pocket of his shorts, trying not to look as nervous as he feels. With a feigned moan of discomfort, he settles on one of the jungle-themed couches, propping up his "bad" leg. Then he stares out the sliding glass doors at the Gulf.
The water is navy blue today, the wavelets silver in the sunlight. Yachts and small sailboats in the distance are a blinding white against the dark water. A motorboat dragging a water-skier in a tiny yellow bikini speeds past, the girl's long white hair like a flag of surrender.
He takes this as a bad sign.
Eventually, however, his heart rate slows as there is no sign of home security. He feels silly about his fears and wishes he hadn't brought Charlie along. Speaking of Charlie, where has he disappeared to?
Kenneth looks around the vast room. His friend is nowhere in sight.
He stands up, planning to check out front to see if Charlie has decided to wait in the car, when Lala reappears.
"I had to wake him up. He stayed up very late, um, working. Working hard on something important for, um, for the city. But he'll see you now."
Uh huh. It was nearly 5 o'clock. And the mayor's just getting up for the day? Kenneth hates laziness in all forms, especially when his tax dollars are being wasted in support of such sloth. His resolve to get rid of this no-account phony politician returns with a heart-kicking rush of adrenaline as he follows Lala down the hall to Mayor Doc's office.
In the doorway, she smiles seductively at him, her full lips a pearly pink, and steps aside. She smells like jasmine. Heady, sweet. He can imagine how many men she's lured into her honeypot, then eaten alive.
He will not be one of them.
Charlie magically appears behind Kenneth and trails him into the office.
Kenneth stands before the mayor, who is sitting in a rolling office chair, undressed in a royal blue silk robe. "Charlie had to give me a lift here," Kenneth explains. "My knee's worse. Do you think I need surgery?"
When the mayor stands up, he wobbles unsteadily, then catches himself. "Let's take a closer look. Come into my exam room." He shambles across the room toward a closed door.
After exchanging glances that say he has an examination room in his house and no license to practice medicine, the two visitors follow the mayor into the adjoining room.
Mayor Doc snaps on an overhead light. The small windowless room is outfitted with a
traditional examination table, a rolling stool for the doctor to sit on, and a series of storage cabinets. A tray with scalpels and other tools of the trade sit on a clean counter beside glass jars filled with cotton balls and Q-tips. On the white walls are hung maps of the human body, organs and muscles outlined and labeled.
Like in any doctor's exam room.
"No nurse?" Charlie asks.
"Not today. Lala is making my breakfast at the moment."
Some nurse. Had she obtained her degree while a resident of the women's correctional institute at Starke? Charlie makes a mental note to have the police department check on Lala's education and license to practice.
Kenneth moves slowly, but his mind races. The tape recorder is on. Two birds in the hand, he thinks as he eases himself up on the table, wincing when moving his knee into position. Mayor Doc rolls the stool over and sits down.
The previous night, Kenneth wacked his knee against the sharp corner of his living room coffee table. He did this as hard as he could, and he did it three times. A small purple bruise popped up, but that has already faded. There is still some redness around the kneecap, and a tiny bit of swelling.
The mayor draws his spectacles from a robe pocket and looks closely at Kenneth's knee. Then he touches it gently, poking about while Kenneth grunts in exaggerated pain.
The mayor smells like bourbon. And yeast. And something rotting, like old fruit.
He pushes his rolling stool back and stares up at Kenneth. "You might should get an MRI. Possibly torn cartilage. Meniscus. You up for surgical intervention?"
Kenneth shakes his head. If he had been, he'd have already consulted a sports medicine physician at LHBH—as the mayor is well aware. Kenneth hasn't followed the normal medical steps for the proper treatment of his injury. The mayor knows there's a reason for that.
Now Kenneth gives him the cover story, one Mayor Doc is sure to hear on a regular basis. "I don't have health insurance," he says, which is true. "Too costly if you're self-employed." Also true.
"Fucking insurance companies," the mayor mutters with a sneer. "Criminal enterprises in cahoots with the courts and the cops." He grunts in disgust. "Well then, all I can tell you is RICE: rest, ice, compression, elevation. And keep off it. No sports, no running."
Charlie says, "You hear that, pal? No running."
Kenneth snorts. Charlie always gives Kenneth a hard time whenever he goes on a mileage binge. He's up to fifty miles a week, been gradually increasing the long runs ever since his wife left. But looks like he'll have to stop so the mayor won't call him on it. At least for now.
Doc stands up, joints creaking, then looms over Kenneth, swaying slightly. "In the meantime, you'll need something for the pain."
Kenneth nods, shrugs, smiles helplessly.
Charlie goes off script. "While we're here, could you take a listen to my heart? I think I developed a bit of an arrhythmia. Not sure."
Mayor Doc says yeah, that happens when the hormones drop with age, so go ahead and take a seat on the table. Charlie and Kenneth trade places. The Doc rummages through a cabinet and pulls out a stethoscope, then takes a listen to what's going on in Charlie's chest.
Charlie gives Kenneth a look that says now we got two witnesses and two separate cases of illegal medical practice. Kenneth nods once, withholding a satisfied smile.
Mayor Doc stands up, glances down at Charlie. His eyes are rheumy, his face unshaven and spotty. He doesn't look so good himself. "I don't hear anything abnormal," he tells Charlie. "You got any chest pain?"
"Ah, some," Charlie says. "And my joints ache when I get up in the morning."
The mayor nods. "I got just the ticket for that."
Charlie says, "Wait. No prescriptions. I don't have that kind of money now that I'm retired."
"Gotcha," the mayor says, then he winks. He tosses the stethoscope on a counter and leads them out of the exam room. "I can supply both of you with the medications you need, at surprising discount prices. I have worldwide connections for obtaining the best in today's pharmaceuticals, see."
The mayor has made his business offer over his shoulder. Kenneth hopes the little recorder picked it up.
They leave the mayor's estate with a packed vial each, the little pill bottles crammed full of painkillers. And the kind of incriminating tape recording that can convince a judge to provide the police with a warrant to search someone's residence.
In this case, the residence of a person dealing drugs. And practicing medicine without a license. And serving as mayor while indulging in both of these criminal activities.
Bingo bingo bingo.
Charlie drives and Kenneth plays back the recording. Most of it is clear and easy to understand. Once it's developed, the photo of the white powder will make a nice addition to their day's work.
"You done good," Charlie says.
Kenneth grins. "Couldn't have done it without you, pardner."
The men fist bump. Charlie drives them to the police station.
At breakfast the next day, the Romeos are full of excitement. Ben polishes off the Danish Moe ordered but didn't finish. Kenneth sets aside his banana-pineapple drink to split a plate of French toast with Charlie. They talk in hushed voices.
Jules comes over to their booth numerous times with more food, more coffee.
Charlie and Kenneth share what they learned from Lieutenant Duress. They tell Moe and Ben how Duress is in the process of convincing a judge in Tampa to issue a warrant. Then the Tampa Bay SWAT team will go in.
"Do we know what day and what time?" Ben asks. "I mean, can we go? I'd like to watch from the street, see what happens."
Kenneth says no, that's not going to work, but Charlie speaks over him and says yeah, maybe. Why not? The two men look at each other. Kenneth says, "Lieutenant Duress said to stay clear."
Charlie shrugs. "We will. We can stand on the far side of the garage. I went to check it out while we were there yesterday. There's no fence and if we're over on that side, we'll be out of the way but with a clear view of the front of the house."
Kenneth is shaking his head when Jules drops by with the check. "You boys are full of energy today," she says with a friendly smile.
They shrug, look innocent, while Moe tells her they like her new hairdo. She's cut her long hair to her shoulders, and it looks extra shiny and smooth.
"Yeah? Thanks. I did it myself. I'm going out tonight so I want to look nice."
The men say encouraging things until she leaves, still smiling. Then they frown at one another, shake their heads.
Ben says, "Guess she didn't need us to set her up."
Charlie says in a gruff voice, "Maybe not, but I sure hope he's not some horny creep who thinks he has the god-given right to manhandle women."
Kenneth adds, "Yeah, and let's hope she's not seeing a LeHigh Beach surf bum. Those guys are all stoners and major losers."
Moe says, "Or worse, a worthless trust fund asshole. Guy who'll woo her and use her and dump her, break her beautiful heart."
The others agree. But apparently, it's none of their business.
Jules hangs around the Romeos' table, eavesdropping and flattering for tips. She doesn't have any plans for the evening beyond selling what she can to get what she needs. She finds it sad they want her to find some man to make her life better. So far, men have consistently made her life worse.
The special session is rowdy and raucous, the mayor in rare form. He's wearing a magenta and yellow tropical shirt, white pukka shell necklace, and his filthy flip-flops. His pants are wrinkled brown worsted, a brushed wool. Nice but outdated. From an old suit, Ben thinks. He remembers wearing pants like that to work back in the day, the pleats in the front, the deep pockets.
Ben is sitting with Charlie in the second row of the town hall. Moe's chair is empty, he's still at the hospital. Another high school kid overdosed today. So Moe may not make it to the special session. Kenneth is late but has promised he'll be there.
The town hall is packed, but that's not saying much. The room barely fits fifty adults. The meeting room also houses the library, which consists of sparse shelves of kid's books and a lot of Florida-related nonfiction. Mostly donated titles from area schools, much of the stock decades old.
Like the mayor's slacks.
At the front of the cramped room, Mayor Doc embarks on a rambling speech about how difficult his job has become due to unwarranted harassment by the LeHigh Beach Police Department. He's playing the victim card. Some of the townsfolk are muttering, but the front row is lined with the mayor's cronies. An oddball crew of out-of-town capitalists of a darker sort, they egg on the speaker with rowdy cheers and sporadic, overly enthused applause.
Charlie stews. The man is a criminal. He's inarticulate, probably half in the bag. Or all the way in the bag. What has this world come to, Charlie wonders, when defrocked professionals and their thugs run our lives, instituting mafia style law: it's okay if the boss does it. Their little town is a microcosm of the broader culture, a society taken over by greed and self-serving millionaires. He can't wait until the police take down the mayor. One small battle won in the war against the conman class.
Ben is appalled as he watches the mayor slur his words and weave across the front of the room. The man is obviously high or drunk, deranged. Doesn't everyone in the room see that? Why would they even consider supporting such nonsense?
"I refuse to continue spending our hard earned money on Lieutenant Duress' band of merry pranksters. They are nothing but a bunch of cowboy hippies in uniform, here to take away our ability to do what we like in our own homes. Our own town. Our own country! Next thing you know, they'll be confiscating our firearms! What about our freedoms, our inalienable rights as stated in the goddam Constitution?"
This really gets the front row going. They jeer and swear loudly. A group of women seated behind Ben titter and tsk. They don't like the mayor's language. And they want the state to crack down on guns so they can feel safe on the streets.
Kenneth comes in and sits down next to Charlie. He leans over, whispers, "Just talked to Duress. It's on for tonight!"
Ben gives him a thumbs up and Charlie laughs loudly. The front row turns to stare. The three men stare back. Fuck you, Kenneth thinks. You and your drug business, your criminal leader and his felonious girlfriend, all you darksiders who are killing our town. You bums are on your way out. And it's about time.
A man in the front row stands up. He's tall, gaunt, dressed in a tight black suit jacket and skinny black tie. Lawyer? Drug dealer? Both? "The LHB fisherman's union supports you, Mayor Doc. As does the mercantile club. And the entire hospital board."
Ben snorts. That's not true. He wishes Moe were here to fact check that last statement. Ludicrous. The cops and the fire department provide the town with an ambulance service and EMTs. Without them, the hospital would have to set up their own service or use one from out of town. How would that work, and what would it cost the taxpayers? And what about people without insurance who can't afford to pay for out of town emergency services, Ben thinks.
Charlie nudges him, then gives a nod to the front of the room. The mayor has wound down his speech and collapsed into a folding chair. His chin rests on his chest and he appears to be nodding off.
Kenneth jumps up, pointing to the snoring mayor and addressing the room. "And this is who we want to represent our best interests? C'mon, people! We can do better than this. At the very least, we need to postpone any voting until the mayor sobers up."
Disgusted, Kenneth stalks out of the hall, with Ben and Charlie behind him. They stand outside under a Halloween orange streetlight, watching as the townspeople emerge. Some look shaken, others are talking animatedly amongst themselves.
"How embarrassing. Such degenerate behavior," a youngish woman in athletic clothing says to her friend.
"He needs treatment. He needs help," her frowning friend scolds.
The first woman stops walking, says, "So he needs to go to rehab. And in the meantime, we keep our cops. And put an acting mayor in office. Someone without an obvious intoxicant problem."
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season, Ben thinks.
After they pass by, Moe shows up. He stops to speak to the women, then greets his friends. "Nurses from the hospital," he tells the guys. "What'd I miss?"
Ben is thinking about Jules. How she didn't attend the special session and instead went out on a date. He's a little disappointed in her choice, but she's young. She deserves to have some fun. Her buried life and Paris in the spring, is what drifts through his mind.
"Tell him about the plan for later," Charlie says to Kenneth.
"I got the word from Duress. A SWAT team is going in tonight. Well, tomorrow, actually, at 4 a.m." Kenneth is whispering, his face bright with excitement.
Moe slaps Kenneth on the back. The Romeos grin. Before they go their separate ways, the four men fist bump.
After her shift, Jules changes. Then she goes to the pay phone outside the ladies room at Brew's Irish Pub and makes a call.
She hurries home, stopping once again at the neighbor's house. But this time they're waiting for her. They open the door and let her in. She trades this for that, and leaves regretting she's cut off her long hair. She didn't need to go that far to get what she needed. Because she doesn't have to sell herself tonight. Instead, she's sold some valuable information. Vague snatches of conversations, ramblings that apparently are worth their weight in coke.
And why look good for a wasted boyfriend and a sick kid, she thinks with a sigh.
But she's pleased because, clutched in her hand, the payoff pulses. The plastic baggie feels warm, alive. Like she's holding a baby's beating heart.
It's a little after 3:30 a.m. when the Romeos meet up again, this time in front of Brew's Irish Pub. The bar is closed, the street dark. The tall wrought-iron streetlamps splatter spots of jack-o'-lantern light on the empty sidewalk, the encroaching shadows long and black.
The men pile into Charlie's car and he drives with the headlights off—just for fun. They're all giggling and jumpy, zinging on fast-pumping adrenaline. He parks a block east of the mayor's street. Then they walk quietly, single file along the sidewalk, until they reach the house.
It's dark, no lights visible from inside. No security lights flash on as the men tiptoe past the asphalt driveway to huddle on the far side of the looming garage. They line up, backs against the cement block wall.
It's a warm night, in the high 70s, and they're sweating. Kenneth strips off his long sleeved tee shirt, drops it to the plush lawn. The moon is a small white orb sucked into a black hole sky. Few stars are visible.
When the no-see-ems swarm, biting invisibly and driving the men mad, the sound of whispered curses echoes off the building. Kenneth puts his shirt back on. All of the men slap at themselves. The noise level increases.
"Quiet," Charlie hisses. "We don't want to wake up whoever lives upstairs."
Ben has forgotten about the mayor's tenants. The men don't know who lives in the garage apartment, but they sure don't want to find themselves on the wrong end of a paranoid's pistol.
Ben takes a load off and sits down in the grass. Charlie squats beside him, and Kenneth lies down to stare up at the glistening moon.
Minutes pass slow and steady. Then a crunch of tires on gravel.
Moe peers around the corner of the building and says sotto voice, "Here come the troops."
Everyone gathers at the edge of the garage to watch. Two dark green SWAT trucks park in the street, and behind them the town's two cop cars. Duress gets out of the last vehicle and joins the uniformed men who are forming a line. They wear a ton of gear, helmets, thick bulletproof vests, all sorts of guns and gadgets, and tall black boots. They have to be hotter than hell, is what the Romeos are thinking.
The four friends smile at one another, their hearts pounding in their chests. This is like something you'd see on TV, like on the show Cops, they're all thinking.
When he spots the Romeos, Lieutenant Duress frowns in their direction. But he doesn't signal them to leave. Which they take as permission to remain in place and spectate.
The SWAT team moves silently across the barely moonlit street. One of the dozen men leads the rest right up to the front door. The lead guy bangs on the door and hollers, "Mayor Bertram Mathers. This is the Cedar County Sherriff's Office. Open up."
There's no response. The cop pounds on the door again and repeats what he said before. Twice.
"The Doc must've taken a good dose of something," Moe whispers. "Nobody sober could sleep through this racket."
Then a light goes on up on the second floor. Probably in a bedroom. A window facing the street opens with a squeal. A voice calls out, "Go away. I don't have what you want. Try next door."
The Romeos shrink back a bit, but the SWAT team doesn't pause to look their way. They stand their ground and the lead cop repeats his request, banging on the door once again.
Nobody comes out. So the lead team member gives the signal and two cops move to the door. They ram it. These guys are built and it doesn't take long before they break the frigging door down.
The team puts on their gas masks, they each assume the position, and somebody lobs a smoke bomb into the house.
Gunfire sprays out the second floor window. A cop goes down, with Duress yelling at the team to hold their fire.
The Romeos flatten against the garage. Everyone is shocked into silence. What the hell just happened?
From his position behind the SWAT truck, Dan Duress raises his bullhorn. "Mayor Mathers, what the hell are you doing?"
The shooting stops.
"Is that you, Lieutenant?"
Duress says, "Yes, it's me. What do you think you're doing, firing a handgun at us?"
The mayor yells, "It's 4:00 in the morning, you woke us up! We thought it was a coup. Or a scam. Fake cops coming here to rob us." His voice is hoarse when he says, "You can come inside if you want. I won't shoot anyone. Neither will Lala."
Lala curses loudly.
Moe laughs. "She's a felon, she's not supposed to have access to firearms. And now he's implicated her. What a dunce."
A door slams. The sound comes from behind the garage, so the men hurry to the backyard. Jules stands there, a baby on her hip. She has a duffle bag over one shoulder, and lays a finger across her lips.
The baby clings to Jules and stares at the men. One of her blue-green eyes bulges weirdly and her little red mouth is slack. Even in the scant moonlight they can see she's scrawny and sickly.
The door opens again and a lanky man with dreadlocks appears. He ignores the Romeos and takes Jules' hand, leading her away from the men and toward the water. In the distance, a flock of juvenile ibis scatters as the young folks approach.
The Romeos watch as the mayor's tenants sneak past the swimming pool and cross a vast spread of Bermuda grass. The baby is silent as the adults creep along the seawall and slip over to the neighbor's property, disappearing into the suddenly quiet suburban night.
"Well, well," Moe says. "I guess our girl already had a boyfriend."
The others shake their heads in deep disapproval. This will be discussed in great detail at breakfast.
The Romeos return to the front to watch the mayor and Lala, handcuffed and subdued, being helped into the backseats of the two police vehicles. The mayor is in his silk robe. Lala wears a see-through flesh-colored teddy that the Romeos will be reminiscing about for weeks.
The police search turns up little damning evidence of practicing medicine without a license. Mayor Doc's home medical office had been transformed into a library, with lots of medical books but no equipment or medications. Lieutenant Duress believes the mayor was tipped off to the pending bust. Still, King Midas sits in jail awaiting trial for attempted murder. The cop he shot is bruised but okay due to the bulletproof vest he was wearing, but shooting at a SWAT team in front of a bunch of witnesses is a serious offense. This erratic and dangerous behavior will take down the mayor and put him away for some time.
Lala goes back to Starke for yet another stint, this time for multiple parole violations.
Jules and Jujube quickly use up all the coke she obtained from Mayor Doc, then they break up. Jules knew they were going nowhere, headed downhill all the way. She leaves him in Jacksonville and takes off with the baby, hitchhiking and putting out for truckers for rides and cash. The kid is eerily quiet until they arrive at Jules' mom's place on Florida's east coast. Then she starts wailing. The unending sound of her daughter's unhappiness is gut-wrenching and crazy-making.
Jules gets a job as a cashier at a dollar store. With a few weeks' pay, she buys a secondhand dumpster of a van. The baby is still sick. Jules still uses. Whenever her mom kicks them out, they live in the car. The baby screams all night. Jules joins in sometimes.
Eventually, the state steps in. Jules thinks this is a good thing. She signs whatever paperwork they give her and the government pays for the kid's operation, the hospital stay, the medications. As it turns out, the baby had a little tumor growing behind one eye. Once the doctors removed it, she got better. She stops fussing all the time, starts growing normally, walking and talking.
Jules doesn't give her daughter the medications the doctors prescribe. She grinds them up, snorts them instead.
Farley's Diner is not the same without Jules. And the Romeos, they're not the same either. No more Romeos and Jules.
The guys still breakfast together on weekday mornings, but over time their meetings grow shorter. Then they become infrequent. Moe starts seeing a divorced nurse with teenagers, spending nights at her place in Clearwater. Ben develops a persistent lung infection and stays home most mornings, recovering slowly. April is the cruelest month, is what he tells his friends. Even though it's July. Kenneth's computer business takes off and he buys a home juicer to make his own raw drinks in between customers. And Charlie, well, Charlie convinces Lieutenant Duress to run for mayor. And when Dan Duress wins the seat, he appoints Charlie deputy mayor.
So Charlie still comes by the diner most mornings to talk to the townsfolk and press the flesh. The new waitress, Dolores, is a real sweetheart. She's around his age and single. He's observed her carefully and there's no sign of dementia.
The Romeos agree, Charlie should ask Dolores to the movies. Charlie thinks he might just do that.