Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Serial Burgler Still on the Job

Mikey Mo runs Key West 
burglar out of his house

John L. Guerra

As a homeowner described how he chased a serial burglar down the street in the middle of the night, police say they are doing everything they can to catch the intruder.
Michael Moschel, who owns Yukata Designs in Key West this week emailed neighbors--who also have been hit by the burglar--about his experience several weeks ago.
"Sometimes I love being an insomniac," wrote, Mikey Mo, Moschel's moniker. "Like the other night when I was in the living room channel surfing at 4:30 a.m. when I see this guy 10 feet away from me trying to break into our home.
"I was scared shitless. So I jumped up and screamed: 'You %#*& I will kill you!' So the guy bolts and I run after him. And the prick got away. Then I screamed at the top of my lungs in the middle of Angela Street at 4:32 a.m. 'I will kill you AGAIN you %#*&!'
"I was so infuriated and felt so violated and he never even got in the house. But what if I had not been up? As I am now at 4:17 a.m., waiting for him to return so I can kill him a third time."

In his email, Moschel urged neighbors, tongue-in-cheek, to ramp up their security systems:
"If by chance any of you in Old Town are sick and tired of this %^$# and want to line your yard with land mines, please let me know as I am tired of hearing about this guy who nobody, including the police have been able to catch."
When interviewed by KonkLife Saturday, Moschel said he was serious about the burglar's effect on he and his wife's sense of security. The event has made him examine the measures he's willing to take to protect his home and family. Killing the intruder could put him in legal trouble, he reasoned.
"I know for a fact you better be in fear of your life if you try to fight back," he said. "You'll be standing there and saying, 'Oh, that's the burglar that I killed.' You better have been clearly in fear of your life and raise the level of your anxiety to what you thought he was going to do to you."
Luckily, the burglar so far has run off when residents wake up to use the bathroom or step into the living room while he's going through their things. His decision to flee could change one night, and that's why police want residents to call as soon as they spot the intruder.
"We have stepped up patrols substantially in that neighborhood and our detectives are using every method they can to solve these crimes," said Alyson Crean, spokeswoman for the Key West Police."
Police are sticking close to the neighborhood for when the call comes, Crean said.
"Our response times are almost immediate, especially at that time [of the morning] and with the added intensity in that area because of the break-ins," she said.
In Moschel's case, Crean said, chasing the burglar was a natural reaction but calling police immediately is more effective.
"For all we know, an officer could have been around the corner and caught the suspect running away," she said.
Crean also repeated what police have been saying forever: Lock doors and windows. Many of the victim homes were unlocked, allowing the burglar easy entry. Since the burglaries began, many have begun locking their doors. Moschel is no exception, though he saw the burglar using something to pry his door open.
"I looked, and I see this guy trying to jimmy it open," he said. "I've since had the locks removed and had locks installed that need a combination," he said. "But if someone wants to get in, if he's walking into a bedroom where someone's sleeping, he's not only ballsy, he's got something to get into places."
Moschel said he couldn't describe much about the burglar--whom some theorize is a woman--because he was so shocked to see someone there. The culprit was only 10 feet away, using a tool to jimmy his wood door open.
"I was watching TV with no lights on and there were no lights on in my yard," he said. "He had a white T-shirt on, is about 5-feet, 10-inches tall, and had a medium build. It was definitely a man. The only thing I can say for sure was the white T-shirt."


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

JFK not buried alone on hill

Brother Bobby, McNamara, and Vietnam fallen surround him

By John L. Guerra

Last Sunday afternoon, as Key West rolled slowly toward a spectacular fall sunset, I stood on a high knoll over the west bank of the Potomac River. As the sun flung brilliance into the water of Key West Harbor, November in Arlington National Cemetery was as it always is. The big oaks, tall elms, beech and maples are nearly bare. They stand in place, guarding the endless rows of white headstones that carpet far hillsides in all directions. There is something about fallen leaves around a gravestone that murmurs immortality.

Though it's Sunday, the national military cemetery doesn't seem crowded; it can't. It is so broad and endless, this sea of tombstones, that ten thousand family members could search among the rows and there would still be silence.
It is five days before the 50th anniversary of JFK's public murder by rifle in Dallas. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I have never been to his grave, never seen the Eternal Flame. I stand here now, though, with my back to the federal city built on the plain far below. The propane-fueled flame jutting from the flat, stone slabs of JFK's grave doesn't flicker. It burns strong. There is no hiss of gas.

The graves seem arranged not by name, but by historical relationship. His wife, Jacqueline, is on his right. On his left, the small stone flush with the ground is his son Patrick's marker. The newborn died August 7, 1963, about three months before his father's slaying.

JFK is not alone on the hill. Two hundred feet away on the same ridge his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, lays under a simple marble marker in the grass. Bobby grew tired of the war his brother had seeded and watered. Bobby gathered the anti-war forces during his 1968 campaign and promised to stop the killing. He was brought down, too.

Walk another 200 feet along the same ridge and a large, pink granite memorial stone marks the grave of JFK's defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara. McNamara's refusal to heed simple facts laid before him by American advisors in South Vietnam made unnecessary so many of the headstones on Arlington's grass sea. In his last years, McNamara laid his sins before America's feet and asked forgiveness.

I met a man. A greying executive haircut--a former infantry officer--but like everyone else breathing a little harder as we tackled the long walk up the hill to JFK's grave. His wife was with him on this walk, as she had been in spirit when he was in Bien Hoa, or My Tho, or Danang--wherever he had fought. She had welcomed him home when his war ended. With all the headstones, monuments, and somber statues to the slain in sight, she knew how kind fate had been. Her husband, instead of walking beside her today, could instead be buried under his own Pentagon-issued grave stone on this November hill.

"I know some guys who are buried here," the man said, answering my question. "I don't know how to find any of them."

I told him about the help desk in the visitor's center some distance behind us. You go up to the counter, you give them the name of the deceased, they look it up on the computer and draw a line on a map of the cemetery so you can find their sites.

"I should do that," he said. But in the meantime, we kept climbing the hill.

He had come to see JFK.






Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A little girl's frightening vision

A hint of things to come

The house we lived in was an ill-kept, Upper Marlboro, Md. farmhouse with broken windows in the top floors, so much peeled paint that the house, originally painted in bright white, appeared grey from a distance. The winter wind blasted through cracks in the window sills and door jambs; fallen plaster left the slats in walls exposed.
This passage describes the vision the little girl in the family has that warns of things to come. It's a first draft, so it will be tighter when it's ready for the book, my second. The book, still untitled, recalls the poltergeist and other entities who revealed themselves to our family.
I  want to see if this passage moves anyone to comment on similar experiences.

On the second floor, Kathi Sanders, just 8, sat under her blankets on her bed across the hall from Billy’s room. Her mother’s bedroom was below hers. The living room was under Billy’s. She was decorating the small table lamp that stood on her night table next to her bed. She would first patiently cut a photograph from a National Geographic, then arrange and paste it to the lampshade. The night was cold, the wind still, but she could see her breath as she concentrated with the scissors. Kathi had thick, black hair with natural curls that would cause a less-fortunate professional model to quit the business. She wore a sweater and long pants to keep warm.
Her room was a little girl’s room, belonging to a little girl who wanted to travel the world and see every animal in it. Her little art easel held an unfinished painting of a whale; a stuffed giraffe shared a shelf with porcelain cats,  elephants, and of course, statues of horses--of all sizes and attitudes. Her bedroom door was closed. Billy was in his room, reading under the million layers of blankets he always used. His bedroom door also was closed.
As she hummed to herself and cut out a photo of a kangaroo in the Outback, she heard her name spoken.
Just a whisper, actually. “Kathi.”
“What?” she said, looking up from her task.
“Kathi,” someone whispered again.
“Who’s there? Billy, is that you?”
Kathi looked over at the window. She saw her own reflection and jumped a little.
“Billy!” she squealed. “Quit scaring me! Get away from my door!”
Billy heard Kathi say something in her room across the hall, but kept reading.
Her lamp blinked off, leaving Kathi in blackness. The lamp came back on.
Kathi’s skin crawled. Her stomach felt weak. She looked at her arms. Goose bumps.
“Muh ... muh ...” she stuttered, trying to form the word ”mom.”
The little girl’s eyes teared up. She turned slowly toward the wall next to her bed. There was a hole where the plaster had fallen away. Not a big hole, about the size of a 45 rpm record. But that’s where the voice was coming from. From inside the wall where the hole led inside the wall. Where there was no room for someone to be.
Kathi peered through the slats into the darkness inside the wall. She felt a blast of cold air and her head swam a bit. She felt her face being drawn forward by a gentle force, its strength growing, pulling her toward the darkness. She threw her little arms out to brace herself against the wall, but she fell forward into the black. Her room disappeared behind her, the light from her room hitting the inside of the wall high above her.
She was afraid, but calmed at the same time. She sensed she was in the hands of a presence, not unfriendly, but troubled. The gunmetal smell of winter, somehow an older smell than the air outside the bedroom she just left somewhere above her, was on the cold that rose to meet her as she floated downward. The darkness lifted slowly as she entered a grey gloom. And still she went lower, she had no idea where, and then there were the tops of trees, woods in the winter, she was above a cold, winter wood. Grey treetops as far as she could see, with the brown, leaf-covered forest floor rising gently to meet her.
She saw she was floating gently downward to a small house, more a shack really, on the forest floor. She came down, feet first, ever so nicely, past rising tree trunks of maple, oak, ash, beech, and tall holly. And just like that, she was standing in a winter wood, not a dozen paces from the shack with a bent wooden door. The windows were closed up with old newspaper and tar paper layered the roof. She heard children's voices and turned, seeing a path through the slumbering trees.
A small black girl, about Kathi's own age, and a black boy, maybe 5 years old, were dragging canvas sacks along the foot trail toward Kathi. They wore patched-up clothes, and each wore shoes that were torn and dirty. The little black girl wore a dress that needed mending; the boy's pants were old and beaten coveralls
Kathi didn't know these children, hadn't met any black children until moving to Upper Marlboro, but she sensed the girl was the entity that had been on her bed and how had lifted her long locks and giggled. The two were grunting with the strain, tugging very hard at the sacks, dragging them ever so slowly toward the shack.
Kathi walked toward them, greeting them with a "Hello there! Do you want some help?"
But the mystery children did not answer; indeed, they hadn't heard her. Kathi could only watch as the two dragged their loads past her. She left the sack on the ground off the porch and turned to the little boy. She took the boy's load from him and patted him kindly on the shoulder. "Wait here," she told him. "I'm going to open the door. Don't be afraid."
The boy, wiping his nose with his coat sleeve, nodded.
The girl walked up the two steps, crossed the small, creaky porch and pushed the door open. She returned to her little brother. He was crying.
"Now, don't be afraid, Nestor," she said, hugging him. "We are going to get daddy warm and he'll get better."
The girl had to use both hands to lift a piece of firewood from her sack. The little boy grabbed a small piece of wood from his load, struggling a bit as he climbed onto the porch.
Kathi followed the children through the shack's front door. The interior was poorly-lit. In one corner of the plywood floor she saw a small wood stove fashioned from a 55-gallon drum. A stovepipe ran  from the top of the drum through a wide hole in the roof.
The little girl, kneeling, opened the stove door. Kathi saw from where she stood that the fire had gone out. She watched the little girl stirred the coals as her little brother went outside to drag in another piece of wood.
Kathi heard someone cough. She turned toward the sound. An old man, ashen and thin, lay on a cot along the rear wall. A dirty, green wool blanket was pulled up to his chin. The mouth on his careworn face was open and his breathing shallow and ragged. Kathi walked over to the man. Up close he was not elderly as Kathi had first thought. He looked to be about Kathi's mother's age, maybe younger. But his sickness had held him like a vise for days, squeezing the breath and life out of him, moment by moment. Kathi, feeling the heat of fever pouring off him, tried to comfort him with words of hope. But he could not see her. He looked past her at the low ceiling, shaking his head and whispering prayers to his God. From her position by the dying man's bed, Kathi took in the rest of the room. There was a counter for preparing food and an icebox in another corner. A washbasin filled with filthy water stood in another. No plumbing was evident. There was no electricity; light from two flickering oil lamps pushed back the winter gloom inside the shack.

Kathi saw that the children had tossed some dirty bed sheets and blankets along the wall opposite the wood stove. A scream formed in her throat as she realized she was looking at blankets covering the body of a dead woman.

She was covered in blankets up to her neck. Her black hair was in spiky disarray. Her eyes were closed. The children had tucked two artificial flowers, orange plastic daylilies, beneath her chin. The mother had been beautiful, Kathi could see, but her thin frame was now empty, her body a still grouping of sticks. Kathi somehow understood that the wooden bed she'd spent her last hours upon had been burned to heat the shack. As had the rest of the humble furniture that was now gone--the wooden kitchen table, end tables, chairs, books, anything that could be burned to heat the shack. And now, the children, on their own, desperate to keep their dying father warm, were finding wood somewhere and dragging it some distance to the shack. And burning it to stay warm themselves.
Kathi's heart was heavy; she wept at the hopelessness of the children's fate. The little boy was quiet, purposeful in helping his sister, squatting as he arrived from outside with the last piece of split firewood. The little girl was doing all the talking as the boy, wide-eyed, bravely doing his sister's bidding.
"Can't you get anyone to come and help you?" Kathi asked the little girl through her tears. She took a step forward to help the girl lift a piece of wood into the sputtering fire, but the shack's front door flung open with a bang. Kathi halted in mid-step.
A white man, bigger than any man Kathi had ever seen, had burst into the cabin. He wore a warm winter coat, a red and black checked hunting cap and blue dungarees atop big mud boots. He was angry, breathing heavily, and squinting in the smoky gloom. When he saw that the children were loading his firewood into the stove, he exploded in a drunken rage.
"You little punks! That's my firewood! You thieving little bastards!"
The children stood up. The little girl stepped in front of her brother to protect him.
"Please, Mistah McTeague! My father is sick. We are so cold. We didn't want to bother you and once daddy is well we were going to bring you some more in."
The man grabbed the girl and scooped her up in his right arm. She kicked and struggled, but he held her firmly with his enormous forearm. McTeague reached down and grabbed the boy, tucking him under his left arm. The boy, not understanding, was complacent. The man carried the children over to the man on the cot, who was delirious and muttering what was happening.
"You raised your kids to be thieves, James," the white man told the dying man. "I told you when I hired you that the land down here is full of firewood, you don't need mine." McTeague swayed, exhaling sour mash whiskey. "Well, you ain't got long. Don't worry. I am going to teach your stealing offspring a lesson they'll never forget. You can gather them up in hell."
Kathi was frightened; yet she stepped forward, yelling at the man to let the children go. He could not hear her. He turned and walked out of the shack and down the footpath. Kathi followed behind the man, whose lumbering walk was unsteady, but still powerful. The faces of two children bounced with the big man's walk. The path in the woods reached the base of a tall hill. The hill was covered in tall, skeletal trees like the bottomland below. Kathi could see sky through the trees at the top of the hill. The vision, if that's what was happening, was certainly not a dream, Kathi knew. The world in which she now begged this angry man for mercy was real; the cold bit into her lungs as she breathed. Vaporous breaths emanated from the man, the children, and Kathi, just as it would in non-dream world.
"Please let them go, mister," Kathi pleaded to the tall's man's back. "They are just cold, you can't punish them for trying to save their father."
The man didn't hear her and leaned into the hill, walking up through the woods to the top. The forest ended at the top of the hill, replaced by a plateau, a flat barren field. Kathi was shocked to see the farmhouse where she had just been quietly playing in her bedroom. It was at the top of a grassy hill beyond the field. The white farmhouse was different, somehow. The paint! The house was newer, its white paint bright, its green shutters didn't show termite damage and weren't hanging off kilter. The large maple in the driveway was markedly shorter and smaller than it was before Kathi entered this time and place. The cellar doors on the back of the house were closed, spotless with new white paint. And that's where the man was headed, two black children under his arms, and Kathi knew fear as she'd never felt it before. She saw a thin white woman standing at a tall kitchen window overlooking the hill.
Uncompromising sorrow washed over Kathi. She halted her climb and stared through tears as the  man neared the cellar doors.
The two children, one struggling to free herself from the man's grip, the other a calm little boy innocent to his fate, suddenly acknowledged Kathi. The little boy's eyes widened with surprise. The little girl, with her ponytails bouncing as she was carried along, spoke to Kathi:
"A bad man is coming for you, too."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Screaming flight to Key West

Captain corrects rude landing at the airport

By John Guerra

The pilot walked down the steps of the A700 jet aircraft to the Key West tarmac and walked under the wing to inspect the rear tires.
She was my captain on Delta Flight 2015 from Atlanta and this engaging pilot had just dropped the rear wheels of this packed aircraft onto the landing strip with an explosive WHAM! that had passengers yelping and begging God for their lives. That may have just been me making those noises, but when the nose of the plane rose to the left after the rear tires hit, I call that a bad landing.
To correct the tick-tock swing of the still airborne nose, the captain reversed the engines and brought the nose down. The plane corrected and everyone was forced forward in their seats as the aircraft came to a manageable crawl.
The flight didn't start out that way.
Standing in the smoking cage in the Atlanta airport, I stared up at the sky of solid gray October clouds. The cloud cover was smooth like a blanket, indicating to me, an expert on winds aloft and aviation weather patterns (not) that all of us were likely to die. This is how I think. Earlier that day I had gone to the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website to see what turbulence I could expect as I flew later in the day. A message on the site said that the site was down because of the federal government shutdown, but that because people's lives depended on such information, essential staff had prepared a "possibility of fiery crash" report, which is actually called a turbulence map.
And there it was: A map of the United States, all clear, except for a band of mustard yellow from the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains of the Eastern United States. The key below said the ugly color indicated "medium to greater wind turbulence." I froze. I hate turbulence. I don't like not being able to pull over and get a cup of coffee and choose whether I want to continue the travel or not. Once you're belted into one of these planes, you have no choice but to bounce, sway, and drop with the aircraft until the flight ends.

So, I get a bumpy flight to Atlanta but survive. Then we got on the plane in Atlanta just after sunset, punched through the grey clouds and whoaaa! saw a beautiful indigo sky above, a brilliant salmon sunset to the west, and a glowing moon above. It was beautiful, this gloaming high above the weather. The flight was so smooth, so ethereal, that I thought about life, how beautiful it is, how calm and great life has been of late.
My row partner, Jodi, who delivers the mail in Old Town Key West, was heading home to Key West after visiting her daughter at Wake Forest. Her daughter, who graduated from Key West High School, is studying forensic science (a more specialized version of it) and wants to work law enforcement.
Jodi is very proud of her daughter; she rightfully bragged that her daughter had been accepted by several universities.
As we talked, the sky transformed into a perfect black, with a silvery moon illuminating the smooth cloud deck below. It was as if we were floating between a carpet of spider silk just below the wings and the edge of space just above the fuselage. And to the west, the thin line of salmon darkened to the color of watermelon.

Then WHAM! The plane's rear tires (our seats were right above them) collided with the runway, sending the nose off compass, and we were saved only by the pilot's quick reflexes as she reversed the engines and came to a stop. You always want to say something to the pilot as they say goodnight at their cockpit doors. As I looked up at the pilot, I said something like, "The runway surprise you, too?" and quickly walked down the short flight of stairs.
She was right behind me. I thought she was going to beat the hell out of me but she just wanted to check the rear of the plane.
At this point, it's important to explain why the landing was so abrupt. Key West International Airport was not built to accommodate large commercial aircraft; regional airlines love the strip's length because there's plenty of room for their smaller, 32-seat passenger aircraft.
In the past couple of years, air carriers decided to fly larger jets into the airport to accommodate the increase in tourists visiting the island. Pilots of 737s have to account for weight and runway distance when coming in to Key West and often tell passengers to brace because they have to come in at a steep angle and hit the runway just right.
Check out this video of a landing. It's not spectacular, but boy, you can see the bounce:
Boeing 737 Drop Kicks Key West ... - YouTube
After the pilot and passengers got off the aircraft, it was a short walk to the terminal across the tarmac and the luggage belt.
With luggage in hand, we exited the airport doors to the street and directly into a work zone, complete with a pounding air hammer chipping away at the concrete sidewalk. The sound was ears-splitting and visitors had to walk through air thick with concrete dust to the taxi stand. The work was being done just five feet outside, between the doors and where the cabs pull up.
Visitors greeted by this?
I may not always like flying, but on this day the landing and the construction people on the ground were much worse than being in the air.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What's in a city budget?

Key West Police dogs get to train, too

By John L. Guerra

You always know you're dealing with a rookie reporter when he or she writes a budget story that numbs you with numbers. Many reporters groan when they have to do a budget story, and I don't blame them. Faced with pages and pages filled with rows and rows of numbers, reporters plunge into their work with the excitement reserved for eating a plate of liver and onions. Then the poor reader suffers through a budget story that doesn't excite.

So what do I do? I just pick the interesting stuff and list it.

If you don't live in Key West, take a look at what's in this tropical city's municipal budget and draw your own conclusions. The Key West City Commission approved the 2013-14 budget at its meeting last week.

For the Christmas Parade and tree-lighting ceremony this year, the city has set aside $2,000. For something called the "Holiday Party," $5,000.

For fireworks and other Fourth of July expenses: $5,000.

The city's Fleet Management Department expects to spend $546 in stamps and postage and $20,566 for the global positioning system it uses to track its pickup trucks, city cars and the Key West Cemetery vehicles. The department has set aside $1,800 for local towing of city vehicles should they break down.

The city dedicated $400 to a city employee to take city vehicles to and from the "mainland" for repair in the next fiscal year.

The police department, of course, has the most interesting stuff on its budget.

Police officers, detectives and support staff will receive $7.5 million in salaries and pay; overtime pay will be around $750,000. This does not include part-time work outside bars and stores and other similar work.

The police department will spend $3,612 for random drug testing for its officers and staff and $2,500 in veterinary services for its K9 units, aka police dogs.

To pay confidential informants and to buy drugs during undercover stings, the police department has set aside $20,000, or enough to buy 1,000 pieces of crack.

The police department has $1,500 to repair bicycles for its bike-mounted officers. For the repair of police motorcycles: $2,000.

For Taser repair and maintenance: $4,000 (they have to be reloaded after firing with these microscopic paper dots that identify which Taser was fired. They also can contain little chips that record when and where they were used).

I like this one because the police dogs get to practice, too: An Ulta Kimono Bite Suit for $1,500.
This is the puffy suit one sees in films of police dogs attacking humans as part of their training. The German shepherd's training, that is.

The police want to buy 10 Remington 870 shotguns for $3,250; two dozen bullet-proof vests for $14,880; and crime scene tape.

Police want to spend $1,000 for training officers in hostage negotiating and an undisclosed amount for "covert audio and video training."

The other powerful law enforcement agency in Key West, aka the Tree Commission, has put aside $5,000 to pay contractors to trim trees and $25,000 to replace trees that have died or been removed during construction, etc.

In Parks and Rec, there are surprising items on the budget:

A tennis pro, to the tune of $9,100; something called "sod consultation" for $8,000; and $50,000 for the Key West Wild Bird Center. Not sure what the bird center has to do with recreation, but that's OK. Keep funding it.

Of the city sports leagues, the one that gets the most money is Li'l Conch Baseball, which gets $19,400, followed by the controversial and rich Key West Junior Football League, which will get $18,000.  Girls Softball will get $10,800; the soccer league, $10,000 and hockey, $7,000. There is no ice rink in Key West. They play in a roofed floor rink near the high school.

So there you have it. You get a sense of what this city is about by its budget, but the budget doesn't measure the personalities and dedication of the wonderful people who work in Key West government. Their efforts show up in the great events, services and society they support. They make this island a great place to live.
They are part of what is known as the Human Budget, which is not measured in dollars. They are priceless.


Monday, July 1, 2013

President Obama, listening in on good Americans

Hope everyone will let me slide on not having any new blogs in recent weeks. I moved to a new apartment in Key West and don't have WiFi so I now go to the Wendy's on North Roosevelt and get a Frostie and write. Not what one thinks of when one imagines life in Key West.
But since I've been gone for a little bit, I am just going to run a few thoughts past you.
First, my novel, "Maddie's Gone" is getting good reviews and the little dog has begun to work her way into people's hearts: people who are considering killing their boyfriends, people who listen to shrimp captains spin lies, and people who try to steal dogs for ransom, that is.
One of the great things about writing a book is that you get to talk about yourself, which is my favorite subject.
See my TV interview where I discuss Maddie's plight here

Privacy on the half-shell

Since last I wrote this blog, we've learned that the National Security Agency, which was once barred from aiming its eaves-dropping electronics at American soil, has been using software that can capture and save vast buckets of voice, data, and video traffic from America's largest telecommunications networks.
We have heard this all before: That Americans who are doing the right thing have nothing to fear; that a warrant must be granted before contractors can open our email packets; and that there are wise people overseeing the sniffing programs.
Humans, as we know, are fallible, have bad days, have bad intentions, and screw up all the time. I do not trust any well-intentioned spying or data mining operation that seeks to find out what we're talking about to who.
I say the White House must notify any Americans, in writing, whose electronic traffic it has stopped and not found useful. In other words, if my email is being read and discarded as not criminal or dangerous, then the government must tell me. Just an idea; that way, innocent Americans know their information is being captured.
I found it odd that a week after Americans went crazy nuts over learning that privacy is not real, the CIA told Congress that it had foiled dozens and dozens of terrorist plots since starting the communications-mining program. The timing was meant to convince Americans that the program was necessary to stop attacks.
What about all the conversations between Boston and Chechnya? Didn't stop the Brothers Karama-bomb from killing and maiming. In fact, the FSB (once the KGB) and the FBI were in full conversation about the two brothers and they couldn't stop those two. So any arguments that reading and listening en masse to our digital traffic is necessary to halt terrorist attacks make no sense to me.

Key West predicts hurricane this year

Locals in Key West are nodding their heads as summer heats up.  There will be a storm this year. Why? Higher tempeatures than usual and a two-week rain field that stalled over Key West. The wind and the soggy skies continue to flow in from the southeast, the direction from which most storms come.
Also, there is a dust that coats car windshields and the surfaces of swimming pools in backyards. That's sand from the Sahara following the high-level wind currents that flow steadily from the coast of Africa westward.
It's time to get the gallon jugs of water; batteries, candles, hand-cranked radios and gas generators. Also, booze, cigarettes, and well, it's up to one's own needs.
There still is no shelter for Keys residents on the mainland. We used to drive to Florida International University in Miami and hang out in a large building there, but that is no longer available to Key Westers. The governor, who is a staunch, right-wing Republican, hasn't yet named a new mainland shelter for us liberals down here in the bottom of the Keys.
I hope someone is listening to his electronic traffic.

Talk to you all soon!
John Guerra

Monday, May 27, 2013

Dog Beach: The day I wasn't doing anything wrong

I was talking to a friend the other evening about close calls and I remembered a dog in Costa Rica that wanted to kill me.
In the early 90s, Sophie, my beautiful girlfriend at the time, and I were laying on the beach on the East Coast of the country, getting some sun.
There were no people on the beach, partly because there were giant tree trunks rolling in the surf. There had been an earthquake in the middle of the rainy season, so root systems in the rain forest relaxed their grip in the wet soil, causing trees to topple when the earth shook.
Trees along river banks toppled into swollen streams and flowed out into the ocean, where the action of the waves broke off their limbs and smoothed the trunks into 1-ton rolling pencils. And they rolled in the waves like baking pins, ready to crush any swimmer who got in the water.
So we stayed out of the water, laying on towels, looking up into the blue Central American sky.
I had my eyes closed, listening to the waves as she quietly read a paperback.
Then Sophie said something like, "Look at that dog running down the beach." Sophie is a mellow person; she states things without much fanfare.
I turned my head to the left and with my head inches off the sand (I was laying on my back) I spotted it. It was far down the beach, a little brown thing, heading our direction. There was a mist on the shoreline, so the effect was cinematic; a hero dog in flight on his way to save a drowning swimmer. All that was missing was a TV crew and background music. I kept my head off the sand and stared.
"Huh," I said.
"I think it's coming this way," Sophie said pleasantly.
That was certain. No owner, no one else around, just this juggernaut on four legs, barreling my way.
"I know they don't really have a rabies vaccination program here like they do in the states," said Sophie, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador.
"No kidding," I said, as the dog's intentions became a large question mark in my morning.
"Yeah, every now and then a rabid dog would walk into town where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and everyone would run into their homes," she said pleasantly. "It was really ..."
"In Costa Rica?" I asked, sitting up, trying to stifle a whisper of alarm budding in my chest.
"No, in Ecuador," she said. She also kept her eye on the dog as it rushed through the mist toward us.
"Huh," I said again, but I heard a laugh build in her voice.
"Here in Costa Rica, though, I bet it's the same as Ecuador as far as rabies. You know, they don't have veterinarians in every town, you know, this isn't the states," she said.
I got up and kneeled on my blanket. The dog was now 200 yards off; I would have to make a decision soon.
"Sophie, what do you think this dog's intentions are?"
There is something about the way Sophie laughs, a sound that describes both wonder and building excitement.
"I don't know, but I don't see a collar or a registration tag on that one, do you? If there was a registration tag on the collar, it would tell you if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies or not. Since the dog has no tags, you have a 50-50 chance."
"I am thinking it might be good to prepare to run," I said.
"I don't think the dog is interested in me," Sophie said, returning to her paperback. "You don't remember last night, do you?"
Sophie would ask that often in the morning back then. Blackouts used to piss her off. My blackouts, I mean. She wouldn't talk to me in the morning after a night of well, heavy socializing. Her favorite question to me in those days was, "You don't remember what you did last night, do you?" Sometimes there would be something for me to worry about. Often, though, she'd ask that question just to make me worry. I'd beg her to tell me what I'd done and she'd refuse, leaving me hanging until I learned what it was or learned that I'd behaved perfectly fine (for a blackout).
"What does this dog have to do with last night," I asked her with the pain-filled voice I used whenever we had this discussion.
"You don't remember?"
"No, Sophie! Or I'd know!"
The dog was close enough now to see the sand kicked up by his paws as he narrowed his body and picked up even more speed.
"OK, the dog's name is Bob Marley and you were teasing him. He belongs to the bartender at the Sunset Room and the dog was tied up outside on the front porch. You were growling at him and jumping at him and he was barking like a crazy animal. People told you to stop teasing him, but as usual, you didn't listen. You kept jumping at the dog and teasing him."
"Oh, no, don't tell me that. Tell me the truth!" I begged, having only seconds to decide.
"I don't lie," she said.
I bolted up the coastline when Bob Marley was less than 100 feet away from our blankets. I launched my run just in time. Sure enough, the dog raced right past Sophie, who was laughing harder than I'd ever heard her laugh. The dog was too fast; there was no hope. I ran into the waves and dove underwater. A log rolled right towards me but I swam under it. The dog entered the surf after me but backed off, snarling and yelping. If I tried to exit the water, the dog came into the surf, growling, showing his teeth, daring me to come onto the beach.
I had to keep my eyes on the rolling trees in the surf behind me so I wouldn't break my back. I looked over at Sophie, who had returned to her paperback. She had a smug smile on her face, an "I told you so" on the edge of her lips.
"Sophie please help me," I pleaded. "The dog doesn't hate you. It hates me. Can you call him over to you?"
"No way," she said. "I didn't do anything to that dog. You did. That's between you and him."
I was stuck in the water for a long time. The dog lay down in the sand, keeping his eye on me. If I came toward shore, he got up and charged into the surf.
They talk about the hair of the dog in the United States. The phrase came to mind more than once as I dodged tree trunks and tried to reason with the dog.
Obviously, at some point, the dog trotted off or I would still be in the surf instead of in the dog house, where Sophie kept me.
I remain grateful that I have not had a drink in many years; I have not had periods of memory loss since the day I stopped drinking.
-- John Guerra

Friday, May 3, 2013

The other woman: Unfaithful Jihadi

In the old days, the American housewife learned of her husband's affairs by spotting lipstick on his shirt collar as she did his laundry.
In the world of modern Jihadi housewives, female DNA on bomb parts serves the same role to alert the wife that the hubbie is mounting another female in addition to mounting terrorist attacks.
Too soon to laugh? Absolutely. I make this comparison not to get a laugh, but to add to the despicable portrait of the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, that's already been painted by authorities. From the cocky look on Tamerlan's face in his boxing photos; to the way he manipulated and beat his wife to make her conform to his brand of Islam; to his scholarship to one of America's top colleges; and the ease with which he moved around town as if he had no care in the world while looking forward to maiming and killing innocents--I find much to hate him for.
He's like the guy who turns the TV up all the way and screw you if you want it turned down. Or the guy who acts like he's a rapper when he's never been in the inner city black neighborhoods. Or just an amoral, lying, evil, murderous, punk who would ambush a young man who was in his first years as a law enforcement officer. And boast about it. The problem is no matter how brutally you enact revenge or justice on his ilk, it never matches the destruction, sadness, and horror he creates in other people's lives.
So, when we learned that another female may have helped him build the bomb parts (the FBI must first find out if the DNA belongs to a victim) I felt that cheating on his wife fit his pattern perfectly.

I am also going to write this, and I believe I'll get blowback: Tamerlan fits perfectly into the generation of kids his age who just don't understand boundaries, don't understand when they are impinging on the comfort of others, who leave doors open, the TV way up, are oblivious to manners, oblivious to society's small graces. They are gentle sociopaths--not necessarily violent. But much like Tamerlan, many of them just don't seem to care.
I am talking about kids who somehow were raised without compassion. They laugh when an elderly person slips on a sidewalk; they don't respond when you ask them a direct question; they look at you blankly when they're behind a service counter. It's as if they are observing the world from behind sound-proof booths. It's probably an effect brought about by having earphones on all the time, or texting, or what have you. We've all seen couples out on a date, right? They sit at the same table, each reading and texting from an IPhone or similar device but never talking to one another.
I swore I'd never write like Andy Rooney, but I guess I am doing just that.
"Conversation, ever wonder where that went? The art of getting to know one another through the exchanging of full sentences? How about trying to be humorous, or using irony effectively to get a point across?"
Tamerlan is of the age of unconnectedness. Yes, he boxed, but he's a sociopath, a killer, and he's an abuser. His personality and apartness didn't raise any alarm bells in his fellow students. He fit into that generation of the disconnected perfectly. Clearly I'm not saying we have a generation of Tamerlan's out there. But conversation, with anyone, might have kept him from so-called, "self-radicalizing." Like many in his generation, he didn't know how to converse, so he heard no common sense arguments voiced that could balance the deadly Islamic message found on YouTube and Jihadi sites.
I don't know, it's all so perplexing, isn't it? A young man of hate, once again, loosed upon the world in the middle of an attentive, active society. A loner? Not really. Married, with friends who also didn't know boundaries or give a shit about anyone else. He had a little brother, who also had friends who all hung out with the older brother.
What a hoot! That's Tamerlan on the TV. Text him! Bro! Can I have your stuff? Ha Ha Ha. Blew up some people! Dude They're gonna catch you! Ha Ha!

I don't know who to blame. The two brothers, of course. But something's different about these times. They say the center won't hold, to beat a tired and rotting phrase to death. But there just isn't any better way to say it, is there? People betray colleagues for no good reason; those with little training or experience are given weighty titles and everyone tries to use shortcuts that undermine tine-honored, professional standards.
Dedicated to your fellow man? LOL.
The invaluable value system that has held together our community, society and nation in past generations just seems to be flinging apart. LOL.

--John Guerra

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Honor Student

Hello, everyone! Here is a short story from "Maddie's Gone", which is a novel based in Key West. The characters in the short stories (one between each chapter of Maddie) show up in Maddie's main story.
Maddie's Gone is available at http://www.amazon.com. It's also at http://www.absolutelyamazingebooks.com, the new online book publisher based in Key West.

Honor Student

4 p.m.

Thunder shattered the humid afternoon as the first raindrops in six weeks fell in the parched backyard.
Rose watched from the open kitchen window as the drops, heavy and swollen, pattered on the broad-leafed plants and launched puffs of dust from the hard ground.
Another thunderclap–buh-room!--and the sky opened up, bringing torrents of cool rain. The thirsty ornamental plants and fruit trees Rose’s grandfather had planted in this backyard a lifetime ago--mango, key lime, star fruit and avocado trees—dipped and swayed under the wind-blown sheets of rain. The young woman breathed deeply, letting the freshened air fill her lungs.
Rose flinched as an arc light above the house filled the room and a lightning bolt slammed just beyond the back fence. Thunder exploded in the trees, rattling windows in their wooden frames.
The storm mirrored the young woman's mood.
"Ritchie … Ritchie … you idiot," she whispered under the rain’s roar.
Rose is a senior honor student at Key West High School. She’s been dating Ritchie since the two were juniors. She’s beautiful like so many young Conch women, lovely with the rare, olive beauty of a Latin movie starlet. She is slim, with elegant arms and small hands that never move far from her sides, even when she’s excited. Her wide, brown eyes are framed by long dark hair, a genetic gift from her Cuban and Bahamian ancestors. Her smile is practiced in delightful reaction to other people’s good news while her voice is designed for soothing troubled friends.
Rose and her 14-year-old sister, Anna Maria—who is a younger version of Rose, though less graceful and far less composed—have a sense of humor tempered by a difficult family life.
Like other children born to Conch families, they live within a protective and lively family circle. Attentive grandparents, conspiratorial and fun-loving aunts, hard-working uncles and a small legion of cousins—all form a world in which the two sisters can safely go about their daily lives.
As for Rose, she is trusting of most young men her age and can love with a maturity beyond her years.
But Rose is no fool.
"Yep, this time you’ve gone too far, Ritchie," she muttered as the breeze lifted the gauze curtains over the sink.
The scent of spices—bay leaf, oregano, cilantro, cumin, chili and curry powders—ride the cool air from the window. Wooden spoons, ladles, spatulas, icing whips and other utensils poke from the top of a jar next to the stove. The small kitchen is where the heart beats in this family.
Misshapen sea turtles Rose made for her aunt when she was in kindergarten stare out from the windowsill. An aging watercolor of a farmer’s market in 1930s Havana is on the wall behind the kitchen table. As the thunder withdrew across the island, Rose prepared for a visit from Ritchie, due anytime. She lit a burner under the teapot. As she rehearsed her conversation with Ritchie, she put out lemons, sugar and milk.
Rose is convinced Ritchie has been trying to sleep with Anna Maria, barely 15. A child! In a few minutes, Rose will see Ritchie and bring an end to this whole charade. Then a new thunder--Anna Maria--hit the front porch and bounded through the front door, gasping for breath. The screen door banged after her.
"Ohmygosh, Rosa! Did you see that lightning? I knew it was going to rain any second when I was at the store so I started running so fast but I couldn’t outrun the rain! Look at me! I’m wet as shit!" Beaming from beneath a tangle of untidy shoulder-length hair, Anna Maria flicked her arms and hands about, as if shaking off the rain.
"Anna!" Rose gasped, trying not to laugh. "Watch your nasty mouth! You are such a sewer mouth!"
"I know, Rosie, sorry," she pretended to pout. "Rosie, hand me a towel, please?"
Rose snatched the dish towel off the oven door and flung it, hitting her little sister in the face. Rose wore a brave smile as she watched Anna towel her hair and arms.
"How are you big sister?" the little sister asked, not really caring about the answer.
"You know you could get hit by lightning playing out there?" Rose scolded. "But please do me a favor, OK? Go and change your clothes in your room and stay in there? Ritchie is coming over and he and I need to talk."
Anna Maria dropped the towel, kicked off her shoes in the middle of the living room and ran down the hall without picking them up.
"Darn it, Anna! Don’t make me pick up after you!"
As she held Anna’s shoes, Rose noticed they were wet, but not soaking wet as they should be if her little sister had run all that way through the rain. The corner store was three blocks away, plenty of time for her to be completely soaked.
"More proof somebody’s lying," Rose said, worried that she may be too late to stop Ritchie.
Rose’s job is to protect her little sister. When her mother was dying, she made Rose promise to watch out for the child. Her aunts never stop reminding Rose of that duty.
Anna Maria, in spite of her attempts to act like an adult, is much too trusting of what people, especially Ritchie, tell her. Rose knew that little girls grew up too fast in this tourist town of bars, adult bookstores and strip clubs. Keeping children carefree and safe from adult truths wasn’t easy. Last year, 16 girls at Key West High School attended class pregnant and completed their studies from home while nursing and diapering their newborns.
Rose and Anna Maria should be what the experts call "at-risk" teens. Their father, a handsome and cheerful Navy officer, drank heavily every day. From a town in upstate New York, he had been stationed in Key West for a short time when he met their mother. The two had fallen in love and married.
The officer loved his daughters deeply, calling them his "princesses of paradise." Rose remembered him running around the backyard with her on his shoulders; how he kissed her cheek as she slept when he came home from work some nights.
But as their father’s drinking increased, he began to lose his memory, Rose’s aunt explained to Rose when she was older. His memory got so bad he’d forget what time dinner was and more importantly, where his wife and two daughters lived. A few times he even forgot he was married, running about town for days with women who were not his wife.
Each time he came to and returned home, he had been sick with grief, especially after coming off a long, drunken spree--one famously lasted 18 days.
To fight back, mother would call him unmanly, a coward, too weak to care for his family. Mother once accused him of being a "maricon," slang for "gay." That was just a tame sample from her verbal arsenal. He’d yell back, but the war had already been lost.
He’d be wracked with sobs as he knelt before his little girls, trying to explain to their little angelic faces that they hadn’t done anything wrong, that he loved them deeply. Rose knew without a doubt that he had loved them. He just forgot where he lived sometimes.
But the Navy officer couldn’t stop drinking, so Rose’s uncle Virgilio and a couple of his buddies stepped up at the request of mother to teach the wayward Navy man a lesson with their fists.
Lesson learned: Father fled the house, Key West, even Florida, never to return. He had been told not to call or even write his daughters, but Rose hoped one day he would come back to visit. She never hated him but loved him and forgave him everything.
Not too many years after that, mother had become very sick, spending several days a week in Miami at Jackson Memorial Hospital undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Then one day there was just Rose, Anna Maria and Aunt Helen. Though they had a dozen other aunts and uncles, Helen, their Tia, had been the one to feed, clothe and care for them, providing a clean home empty of chaos and fear.
Aunt Helen was now in Miami at Calder Race Track with some of her buddies at this moment. Her vivacious aunt trusted Rose, so as she played the ponies and hit the malls in Dade this week, it was Rose’s job to watch Anna until her aunt returned in a few days.
Rose heard a tentative knock at the screen door. She saw Ritchie peering at her through the screen door. Her heart skipped—not out of love for the blue-eyed, athletic young man—but for the impossible act she was about to perform. Ritchie knocked a second time, but timidly…the sign of a guilty man?
"Hey there Rosie. Mind if I come in?" Ritchie asked as the rain angled under the porch roof, pelting him.
Rose didn't budge. She usually ran to the front door with a big hug in greeting, so Ritchie waited.
Someone had to give in, so Ritchie opened the door, stepped into the house and politely pulled off his shoes. He placed them neatly against the wall inside the front door.
Rose watched him from the kitchen and didn’t offer him the towel.
Ritchie walked into the kitchen and leaned over to kiss her cheek, but Rose pulled away. She stepped over to the kitchen sink and resumed her place there.
"So you are upset at me," Ritchie said. "You didn’t sound happy when you said you wanted to talk."
Rose turned toward him.
"I called you over here because I need to get some things straight between us."
Ritchie sat at the small kitchen table. "What kind of things?"
He knows exactly what I’m going to ask him, Rose thought. The tea kettle began to whistle.
"You and I have been together since last year, when I was 17, when we were juniors ..."
"Who cares how long ago that was," Ritchie said too quickly. "I still love you with all my heart."
"…but we made it work," she continued. "My aunt didn’t like you, but I told her you were being a gentleman. You didn’t try to get in my pants or anything."
"I respected you. I didn’t want to rush things."
"I haven’t ever forgotten that," Rose said.
Rose put a spoon and tea cup in front of Ritchie. Tears formed in her eyes.
Ritchie thinks he knows where this is going. She was dumping him. For good.
"I don’t want us to break up …" Ritchie blurted.
"Shhhhhh," Rose said, looking into his eyes for the first time. "I just want to know, and you have to be honest with me. Are you trying to sleep with my little sister?"
At this, the precisely wrong moment, Anna walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. With her head inside the refrigerator door, Anna turned and looked at Ritchie with a sexually meaningful look. Ritchie snapped his head down and stared at his lap.
Rose saw the little exchange; her instincts and what she’s heard from her are true. Her boyfriend has been having an affair with Anna.
"Anna Maria! Ritchie and I are talking!" she yelled.
"Just a second, Rosie ... I have to get a soda, chill," Anna said, giving Ritchie with what the little girl imagined is a look of romantic longing. Ritchie still refused to look her direction.
"How are you, Ritchie?" Anna tried again.
"OK, I guess," he said, still staring at his lap. "Why don’t you go to your room? Rose and I need privacy."
She smiled at Ritchie as she closed the fridge door, then skipped down the hall to her room. Ritchie cursed under his breath. He was red-faced as he studied his hands.
Rose exploded.
"Did you give my little sister a ride on your way over here!?"
"I saw her walking in the rain so I gave her a ride," he lied. "She was on her way here from the store when I saw her."
"That’s why her clothes are so dry, even though she told me she ran all the way home through the rain?" He must have dropped her off a half-block down the street. Rose wanted to punch and kick this boy she’d trusted with her body, her love, but she didn’t.
The water on the stove began to boil, a weak whistle building in the kettle's throat.
Rose is not just angry but frightened, too. There’s no telling how long Ritchie and Anna Maria had been alone in Ritchie’s house today—or in his car, or wherever they were doing what she feared they'd been doing. She imagined the worst, picturing Ritchie and Anna ...
She shivered at the thought. Rose yanked the tea canister from the cupboard and slammed it on the table in front of Ritchie. He jumped in his chair.
"Why did you have her act like she had been running home in the rain instead of just telling me the truth? She wasn’t outside in the rain!You didn’t pick her up at the store, either, she has no packages. She didn’t buy anything.You dropped her off up the street and then you waited in your car long enough to make it seem like you had driven here alone."
Ritchie sat silently, embarrassment heating his scalp.
"Elizabeth Spago said she saw you and my little sister getting real hot and heavy at the movies two nights ago.You like minor children, Ritchie?"
He gaped up at Rose: "What are you talking about? She’s your little sister! We were just talking! Elizabeth is just starting her normal shit!"
"Just now, you were with Anna Maria before you came over here, right?"
"I gave her a ride because it was raining!"
"No! I mean you were with her at your house Ritchie! I am not stupid. You have been messing around with my little sister. Are you two doing what you do with me?"
Anna Maria burst into the kitchen again. "I am not a baby!" she shouted at Rose.
Ritchie stood up to leave.
Rose whipped around: "Sit the hell down!" then: "Annie! We are talking! Go back to your room!"
"He just kissed me a couple of times and held me when we were watching TV! That’s all he did! He loves me! You’re just jealous!"
Ritchie died a thousand deaths. He froze in a crouch above the chair, stuck between sitting and fleeing the house.
"Girl, you’re crazy!" Ritchie yelled at Anna. "I never kissed you or touched you! You’re making this up to hurt your sister!"
Their exchange left Rose speechless; her mouth hung open in disbelief. Then she laughed, a hearty, woman's laugh, laughing, laughing at the insanity of it all. She also felt relief that she was doing the right thing. Ritchie was history.
Looking out the window again, she saw that the sky was still dark, but the rain was slowing. She sighed, letting her anger dissipate.
"Anna," she said calmly, "please go back in your room. Everything’s OK.You haven’t done anything wrong."
Anna wanted to say something more, but thought better of it. She retreated down the hall to her room. Ritchie settled back into his chair with his arms on the table. Rose stood behind Ritchie's chair as she put a tea bag into his cup.
Rose turned off the screaming kettle and brought it over to the table.
"I believe you, Ritchie," she lied. "It’s just that I hate it when you don’t tell me the truth, OK? And I have to watch out for Anna, that’s all there is to it."
He leaned back to give her room to pour. He knew silence was the right play here.
Swirling hot water engulfed the tea bag and rising steam caressed Ritchie’s nose and eyes.
She stepped to the other side of the table and filled her teacup. She returned the kettle to the stove. Rose realized she wasn't sad about what she was doing. Not in the least.
Ritchie sipped in silence, adding sugar and lemon. He stirred his tea, unable to look at Rose.
Rose let the silence ride as they sat together in the small kitchen. She will ask Anna Maria exactly what Ritchie has been up to, but now wasn't the time.Today was for mourning. She took a long look at Ritchie and said to herself, "Goodbye, Ritchie. You won’t be coming around here any more."
Ritchie’s cell phone rang.
"Yo! What up?" "No shit? I’ll be right there."
There’s that gangsta talk he does, which Rosa never liked. Ritchie and she get top grades at the high school, but she doesn't employ slang with their friends.
Ritchie closed his cell phone, took a long sip of his tea, and dashed to the font door.
"That was Bobby, Rose. He’s OK, but his car ran off the road," he said as he put on his shoes. "He needs me to pick him up."
Rose was relieved; she didn’t want him falling apart in her mother’s house. She didn’t want Anna to see him destroyed. She wanted Anna far, far away from Ritchie when things turned ugly. This saved her from asking Ritchie to leave.
"OK, Ritchie," she said, not getting up from the table. "Call me later, OK? We need to talk some more. We aren’t done here."
"I know, I am so sorry all this stuff is being said. It’s not true, you know I wouldn’t hurt you …" He ran out the front door and was gone.
Rose dumped the cups in the sink and after scrubbing the basin, let hot water run a long time. She threw the cups, spoons, napkins, and sugar bowl into the trash, and took it out to the curb.
11 p.m. Two men stood before the body of a young man laid out on a stainless steel autopsy table at the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s office. The man on the left, Key West Police Detective Ron Pabon and his friend on the right, the Keys medical examiner, were getting their first good look at the body, which an M.E. assistant had just delivered through the loading dock.
The deceased young man’s face was blistered and his lips swollen like one of those party balloons clowns twist into Dachshunds. The skin was flaking off the upper arms and chest of the man in reddish, paper-thin strips. The eyelids also were swollen nearly closed and skin was flaking off his forehead.
"Good looking kid," Detective Pabon joked.
"How can you tell?" the M.E. asked, turning away from the victim to look at the homicide cop. The doctor was older, with gray hair and thick eyeglasses that enlarged his grey eyes five times normal size. Those giant eyes flapping at him through the glasses’ coke bottle lenses gave the detective the creeps.
"Because you can’t take your eyes off him," the detective said.
The M.E. didn’t laugh. "What do you know about what happened to this kid?"
Pabon cleared his throat and pulled a small notebook from his suit jacket.
"Got a call from some guys, some friends of his who were hanging out on a residential street near White Street Pier," he said.
Pabon’s cell phone rang. He looked at the number displayed on its screen, and ignored the call before continuing.
"One of them had wrecked his car by running into and over a stop sign. They were trying to find a way to back it off the sign, which was bent beneath the oil pan. The victim pulled up in his car, got out, already complaining that his eyes and mouth were burning. Then he starts complaining of stomach pains. He vomited and screamed that his insides are burning. His pals said he was dancing around like he was on fire, scratching at his face and chest. Then he went blind, running into things, screaming that he couldn’t see. He fell into the street and went into convulsions. He did the death kicks, right there on United Street. A young kid like this, he just fell apart and died minutes after joining his friends."
"Any of the kids at the scene on drugs or drinking? Was the driver of the car that hit the sign impaired?" the M.E. asked.
"There was no indication that they had been taking anything or drinking," the detective said. "I interviewed each of them with that in mind. I smelled no alcohol on them and their pupils moved normally, even though they were scared to death of what they'd just seen happen to their friend. One of them said he grew up with the dead boy. Same age."
As the M.E. pushed down on the young man's fingernail beds, Pabon continued.
"Dispatch got a call of a sick person and when the EMTs got there, the boy was down; they got no pulse. They tried CPR, which I don't want to think about, and then I got the call. They said they smelled some possible chemicals on the kid, which is how they think his skin got like this. And his lips and skin … well you can see, doc, he got into something. The EMTs said it looked like some kind of chemical poisoning. Even his scalp is scaling off. Unless it’s the worst bee sting reaction the planet has ever seen, I figure exposure to something. I agree with the ambulance guys, that this kid got hit with chemicals. That’s why I want you to tell me as soon as you figure something out. If it's chemicals, we have to find the source so no one else gets hurt."
"Anyone else there complain about feeling sick, itchy, any of this kid’s complaints?"
"Nope," Pabon said. "They were all fine. Like I said, I took my time talking to them to make sure. They hadn’t been exposed to anything he might have been exposed to. But I told them to call a doctor and then me if they started feeling ill."
The M.E. nodded as the detective spoke.
"It looks consistent with a chemical attack, to tell you the truth," the M.E. said. "I was an Army medic and we studied all this stuff. First Gulf War and all that; we saw pictures of what sarin, anthrax, mustard gas, and those other nasty weapons can do to soldiers. Sick stuff. Blistering agents create results look just like this kid. I'll do an autopsy tonight, make some phone calls in the morning. It wouldn't hurt to contact Centers for Disease Control or Homeland Security in Miami. They’d want to know about this."
The M.E. paused for a moment, then said:
"First I’m going to back away from this kid and put on some protective gloves, a rubber smock, eye protection, the works. He’s like a seed pod ready to explode."
"I thought you already had your goggles on," Pabon laughed.
"Screw you, detective," the M.E. said, his eyes growing in giant irritation behind his thick lenses. "I'll talk to you in the morning."

The next day
10 a.m.
Pabon drew the sleeping woman close to him. His wife’s rhythmic breathing was beautiful and it drew him back toward sleep.
His cell phone chirped, ending that idea. His wife stirred and mumbled, "Answer the phone, detective."
"Yes ma'am," Pabon said gently. "Hello Doc .... what, right now? OK, give me an hour."
After a cup of Cuban coffee and a hot shower, Pabon put on clean slacks, a pressed shirt and a suit jacket and drove from Key West to Marathon to visit the medical examiner. It was another beautiful morning.
This time, the M.E. and Pabon wore splash guards over their faces, as well as rubber gloves and aprons as they stood before the young man on the autopsy table. The young man hadn’t moved an eyelash overnight.
"I hope you are a man with an open mind," the M.E. said. "At first I couldn’t believe it, either.
"Believe what?" Pabon asked.
"I have a couple of choices for you, detective, but I’m going to give you the most likely scenario. I haven’t sewn him back up because I wanted you to see this."
Pabon was fighting nausea at the back of his throat. There’s a chemical smell in the air but it’s not formaldehyde, which he has smelled before. The boy's intestines are a jellied mass; his esophagus is peeling; and blood flecks his lungs and other organs.
"Is it something we have to alert the feds to?" Pabon asked, his bile rising. By law, local law enforcement agencies must immediately report any suspected deaths from sarin, anthrax, mustard gas or other weaponized chemical to the Florida Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and the FBI, which was part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"I am not sure in this case," the M.E. said. "From what I understand, what we're dealing with occurs naturally. The substance that baked this boy’s insides is a local product."
"What are we talking about here?" Pabon asked, irritated at the M.E.'s inability to get to the point. Something that could do this to an otherwise healthy young man’s stomach and organs should not be available to the public. He wanted to find it and get it under control.
"It took me a while to track this thing down this morning," the M.E. said. "I made some calls to internists, poison specialists and gastro-enterologists in Miami and Tallahassee. They all pointed to possible poisoning by a chemical weapons agent. What I described to them over the phone wasn’t something they could pinpoint beyond that. I e-mailed photographs to the CDC and also described the smell over the phone to one of their experts. I also express mailed the CDC tissue samples, but that’s going to take some time to get results."
"How long will it take?" Pabon snapped. "Get to the point, doc. You told me this was something produced locally. Is it something off the Navy base?"
"Could take a month," the M.E. said, ignoring Pabon’s impatience. "But I think we already know what it is. The best train of thought comes from academics, right here in the neighborhood. When I called the University of Miami, a toxicologist at Jackson Memorial suggested I call a botanist."
"Come on, a botanist? Look at this man’s insides, doc! You’re saying a plant or a flower did this?"
"Ever hear of horse madness, detective? I don’t expect the term to mean anything to you because most modern doctors don’t come across it. Few detectives have heard of it, either. It didn’t mean anything to me, either," the M.E. said.
"What do you mean, 'modern doctors?'"
"The term horse madness was coined in the 1600s by an English medical specialist who was familiarizing himself with the plant life of the New World tropics. He was along for the ride with other early Spanish and English settlers who came ashore in the Caribbean Basin. He’s the one who came up with the term "horse madness."
Pabon relented. "Explain this to me, doc."
The M.E. reached behind him and picked up a thick volume laying on the instrument table behind him. "Listen to this, detective, and learn," the M.E. said. "This comes from a tropical plant encyclopedia. I got it from a local botanist who dropped it by this morning."
He opened the book and read.
"When the Spanish, French and Dutch began to explore and settle the Caribbean Islands and South America, the new arrivals hacked down trees and burned jungle to clear land for their settlements," the M.E. read. "A ship’s doctor noticed that the smoke from certain trees caused extreme respiratory distress, and that the smoke also burned the eyes, nose and throats of slaves and settlers. Smoke in the eyes caused blindness for up to six months in some unlucky settlers who tried burning out forest to make a homestead. Chopping down the trees wasn’t much better, because the sap and bark caused skin irritation, boils, blisters and caused the skin to even peel off un-exposed arms, legs and other areas. Even sitting under these trees during a rain can cause blisters and skin burns. Birds that rest in the trees also can be poisoned in heavy rains and fall to the ground mortally poisoned."
"What! So a plant killed our victim?"
"A tree, actually, or its fruit, leaves or bark, if I’m correct. Its scientific name is Hippomane mancinell, the hippo part refers to horse. It’s called Manchinell and it grows right here in the Keys; but it’s found almost solely in Big Pine Key. It grows in the environment between the mangroves and the hardwoods."
"That’s horrible, doc.So this kid must have been walking around the mangroves and brushed up against this tree? I asked his friends where he’d been that day, they said they thought he’d been at his girlfriend’s earlier but his buddies never mentioned that he’d been in the woods."
"He probably wasn’t exposed to this nasty plant in the wild, detective. Here, take a closer look at his throat. You see how his esophagus is destroyed?"
The esophagus was ulcerated, actually melted, and the stomach lining had sloughed off. The digestive tract was corroded from the chin to the small intestine. Pabon shook his head in amazement.
The M.E. continued:
"I called Dr. Stephen Hodges, the botanist at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden and he faxed me a description of what the leaves and fruit of this plant can do to a victim when eaten," the M.E. said. "Guava in this description means jelly made from its fruit or sap, what have you," the M.E. said. He put the book down and pulled a fax from a pocket on his protective smock.
"If eaten, the poisonous guava leads to the dissolution of the mucus membranes from the back of the tongue down, accompanied with massive internal hemorrhaging … sloughing of the gastric mucosa evident. Abdominal pain, vomiting and bleeding of the digestive tract is usual.
The plant contains carcinogens, is water-soluble and contains toxins that Caribbean Indians used to tip their spears for hunting. Animals would drop dead soon after being hit with their arrows."
"I still can’t believe this stuff grows around here," Pabon said.
"The tree is actually a self-contained chemical weapons factory designed to protect its leaves, bark and roots from any insects, pests or birds that deign to feed off its fruit, or apparently, rest on it or under it," the M.E. said. "That’s how the tree defends itself in the tropics where insects are lively year round. There’s no frost to kill the burrowing and feeding insects, so the tree came up with its own killing system over the ages. And the result in humans, anyway, is the odorous and tragic situation we see here before us," the M.E. said. "Live and learn. Or die and teach, as this man has done for us."
Pabon was thunderstruck.
"They should teach this stuff in school so people don’t make the mistake this poor kid made," the detective said. "I’ve never heard of this tree before. And it's all around us?"
"Not all around us, but there are patches here and there on Big Pine Key. Most residential areas in the Keys are free of it, thank God. But I think you’re missing my point."
"What point is that, doc?"
"Since we have no indication that he went for a hike in Big Pine or anywhere else, how did he get this poisonous plant inside of him?"
Pabon pointed a finger in the M.E.’s face, and with mock anger, said, "I was thinking the same thing, and since I’m the detective here, I really think you should have let me say that before you did. But I’m going to let that one pass."
"Right," the M.E. smiled. "Someone crushed up the leaves or bark of the plant and fed it to him in a nice red pasta sauce or in a drink."
Pabon pulled his small notebook from inside his jacket and flipped through its pages.
"That is an exceptionally brutal thing to do to a person, don’t you think, doc?" Pabon said. "That takes an extremely sick individual and someone with very little love for his fellow human beings, I’d say. It also sounds like the poison hits fast so the kid must have ingested it not too long before he pulled up to his friend's little car crash. It's time to talk to whoever saw him last. If his friends are correct, it was his girlfriend."
Pabon slapped his friend on the shoulder and walked through the swinging doors to the loading dock and his car, leaving the M.E. with his silent teacher.

1 p.m. Rose lay on her back on the sofa, a tissue in the hand that covered her face. A box of tissues sat on the coffee table next to her. Her eyes were swollen from crying. She had slept little the night before, what with cousins and close friends calling or dropping by at all hours. She was wiped out emotionally and physically exhausted. She was in the world between waking and sleeping.
Anna Maria was in her bedroom, fast asleep after a night of crying. Aunt Helen had called earlier that morning from Miami. Upon hearing the news about Ritchie, she told Rose she would drive and be home by evening.
Rose opened her eyes to the solid knock at the front door, but didn’t move to answer it. She couldn’t take another visitor.
The knock came again, this time much stronger. Rose sighed and put her feet on the floor without rising. As the third knock, a near pounding, filled the house, she heard an authoritative voice on the other side of the door.
"Hello? Anyone home?" the voice boomed. "This is Key West Detective something something …"
She jumped to her feet. She had expected this and thought she had prepared herself. But she now realized there had been no way to prepare for this visit. Taking a deep breath, she walked across the living room and pulled the door open just far enough to peer through it.
Looking out at Pabon from a slice of open door was a beautiful young woman with black hair and deep-brown eyes, eyes swollen from hours of crying. As Rose stared at him, Pabon saw she was wearing fuzzy slippers and a Key West Conchs sweatshirt over a pair of blue jeans. She had a wadded tissue in her hand, but held her head high as she greeted him.
"May I help you?" the young woman asked.
"Miss Lopez? I’m Detective Pabon. May I talk with you?"
"Sure, uh, come in." She opened the door wide, stepped aside and motioned for him to sit in an easy chair near the couch.
"I appreciate you seeing me, especially at a time like this," Pabon said gently as he sat. "I just need to ask you about Ritchie. I understand you and he were close."
"Actually, Ritchie is ... was my boyfriend," she said, sitting on the couch. She tucked her legs under her and let her head fall back on the top cushion. She sniffled and dabbed her eyes.
"This is extremely painful for you," Pabon began, "but I have to go over some things and we can close this case. How much have you heard about how Ritchie … about what happened to him?"
With her head back, staring at the ceiling, Rose answered.
"I got a call from my girlfriends as soon as they heard about it," she said. "They said he was talking to his friends, laughing and stuff and then just started screaming in crazy pain…" Her voice hitched as she stifled a sob. "They said they were calling his name but he wasn’t responding, like he was out of his mind in pain. They said he was foaming at the mouth." Rose sobbed again for the detective.
"Did Ritchie take any drugs, you know, smoke pot, take pills, or …"
"No!" Rose said. "He was an athlete and the football players at school have random urine tests and he could be suspended from playing if they caught him. He drank beer and sometimes mixed drinks, but he never took drugs. Is that what you think happened?"
Pabon ignored the question.
"Does he have a hobby or outdoor activity that might take him into the mangroves?"
"He loves to fish, but he fishes from a boat, detective. This is a strange line of questioning. Can you tell me what you think happened?"
Pabon told Rose what he'd learned from the M.E., that a poisonous plant, a plant that grows in the Keys, could have killed her boyfriend.
"Rose, we think Ritchie somehow ingested something, accidental or otherwise, from that tree. It poisoned him."
Rose’s face blanched. Pabon noticed that her body shook.
"I don't mean to be so graphic but we must be straightforward here," Pabon said. "Yesterday, when he came by to see you, was he eating anything? Did he say if he'd eaten lunch or, you say it's impossible, but did he say anything to you that would indicate he had smoked some plant substance? How about helping someone clear land … has he helped anyone chop down a tree, or clear a yard? We need to know how he got this stuff inside of him."
"He is the kind of guy to help his friends with their yards, helps them paint, that kind of stuff," Rose said. "But I don’t think he’s done anything like that recently for anyone. We were together most of the time."
"I understand he was here with you when he got the phone call to help his friends. I understand he got a phone call from one of his friends while he was here, at your house."
"That’s right, he was here," Rose said, measuring her words. "But only for a minute. He ran out of here pretty fast and I don’t blame him." Rose began to cry again.
"What do you mean, you don’t blame him?"
"We were arguing about something. It wasn’t important, but you know how it is when you’re dating someone. A little argument, that’s all."
Leaning forward to get Rose’s attention, Pabon asked evenly, "I want you to think very carefully before you answer this question, Rose. Did you serve him anything to eat or drink while he was here?" He stared at her, watching her face for clues that she was lying. Rose looked back at him with steady, but weepy, eyes.
"No, nothing, detective. I asked him if he wanted a soda, but he was in a hurry."
Annie has been listening from the hallway, her eyes wide. The tea! Rosie was serving Ritchie tea just before he left yesterday. Just before he died! Could it be that Rose killed Ritchie? The idea was absurd, crazy, but why else would she lie? Anna Maria went to Rose’s bedroom to check something. She found what she was looking for and snuck back up the hall near the living room.
For the 14-year-old, the decision was clear. Rose couldn't go to jail. They were supposed to protect each other; their mother had taught them that. Sisters were more important than boys. Anna listened as Pabon's questions grew more direct.
"You two were arguing? About what?" the detective asked.
"He’d been going behind my back with a girlfriend of mine," Rose lied again. "We had an agreement that we weren’t going to be with other people, and he broke that agreement. Not new in human history."
Pabon nodded thoughtfully. "I have to ask this again. When he was here, did you give him anything to eat or drink? Did he have a soda or a beer in his hand when he came over?"
Rose waited several beats before answering. She knew she would be asked this question. If she admitted serving Ritchie the tea, it was game over. She was going to jail. She had thrown away the cups and washed out the sink, but it wouldn't take much for detectives to find traces of the tea in the trap below the sink. Pabon continued to stare at Rose, waiting as she considered her answer. Rose remained silent, hesitating too long.
Anna burst from the hall and into the living room.
"Nope, he didn’t eat or drink nothing while he was here, officer," Anna blurted to Pabon. "I was here the whole time he was here and he didn’t stick around long enough to have anything. He and Rosie just talked for a few minutes and then he left."
Pabon watched the older sister’s reaction to the little girl's words. Rose kept her eyes on Pabon, fighting a terrible urge to look away.
"Is that right, Rose? You were the last to see him in good health but minutes later he was dead from poisoning?" Pabon snapped. "Does that sound about right to you?"
Rose's heart was pounding. On the outside, she was trying to look calm. Inside, she was teetering on the edge of hysterics. Pabon was leaning far too close to her, like a wolf ready to leap on a rabbit.
"I have no idea what happened to him, detective," Rose finally said after a few moments. "I loved him. Now he's gone and my heart is broken."
With that, Rose began to cry again. This time she wasn’t acting. She was scared. Florida used the electric chair for crimes like this, honor student or no honor student.
Pabon leaned back and looked at length at the two sisters, measuring them. The cogs moved in Pabon's head.They didn’t act like killers, but something was out of whack in this little house.
He also had to consider that Ritchie maybe took something in his car after he left this house. Maybe he thought it would get him high, and he didn’t know what it was.
After all, kids smoke and drank all kinds of stuff these days to get high. Licking the backs of toads for God’s sake. They smoked salvia, an ornamental garden plant related to mint and sold at Home Depot. It has killed some kids, too. At least that’s what the latest U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency missive to local law enforcement agencies said. Lately kids had been smoking spice, a lab-manufactured form of THC they could buy at little corner stores around Key West. Then there was the phenomenon of bath salts, another street chemical high blamed for causing a man whacked out on the substance to eat the face of a homeless man in Miami. Until the M.E. got the lab results from the specimens he sent out for testing, the Big Pine plant was only one possibility as to how Ritchie had died.
At the moment, Pabon knew he had no evidence that these girls had anything to do with Ritchie's death. How would they know about the plant when it took the M.E. several phone calls to experts to learn about it? A half-dozen unlikely steps would have had to occur for this young lady to get the poisonous tree in her hands and get it into the victim. But something was going on here. Their answers didn't sound natural, Pabon reasoned. If necessary, Pabon can return to this house and search it after the M.E. definitely IDs the poison. At that time the detective can pull the trap under the kitchen and bathroom sinks and close the case. Easy enough thing to get a warrant.
"I tell you what, Rose," Pabon said as he stood. "I’m going to leave my card with you and I want you to call me if you need or hear anything."
"Of course!" Rose said a little too quickly.
Pabon stared at her for two beats before continuing. "I am sorry about your boyfriend. Who knows what he got into. If you hear anything or have any other thoughts on what might have happened, please let me know."
"Yes, of course," Rose said through tears of relief. "Thank you, detective."
After Pabon drove off, Rose collapsed onto the couch and let the air rush out of her lungs. She made room for her little sister, who sat down and put her big sister's head in her lap. Rose didn't say anything for a long time. Anna, also lost in deep thought, stroked her sister’s hair.
"I love you big sis," Anna finally said.
"Why did you tell him that?"
"Why did you tell the detective that I didn’t give Ritchie anything to eat or drink? I gave him some hot tea. You were in the kitchen."
"I told the detective that because there’s no reason for you to get into trouble if you didn’t do anything to hurt him."
"Of course I didn’t hurt him," Rose said. "I have no idea what happened to him."
"You and I both know you killed him, but blood is thicker than water, Rose."
Rose gasped. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It all came to me when he was asking you questions," her little sister said, still stroking Rose’s hair. "I was listening in the hallway. I remembered that I saw your textbook, the one you’re using in AP history; on your desk in your room."
"When were you in my room?"
"I borrowed your belt yesterday. The textbook was open to the section on the Indians. There's an artist’s depiction of Indians making a broth and serving it to their enemies. Their enemies were also tied to trees in the book. I put two and two together when I heard the detective describe what happened to Ritchie. Everyone was saying he was like in convulsions, twisting on the ground, grabbing at his stomach, and foaming at the mouth. Then when you were talking to the detective I went back to your room and saw the picture again. I thought about it and your tea is what killed him, there’s no doubt about it."
Rose cringed at her stupidity. All the detective had to do was go in her room and see the text book. Then it would have been over: "Miss Lopez, you are under arrest. Will you please turn around?"
She pushed the thought away. She changed the subject.
"I didn’t give you permission to borrow my belt, Anna.You have your own clothes!"
They both were lost in deep thought.
Anna broke the silence.
"We have had to depend on each other for so long since Dad got kicked out of the family and mother died," Anna said. "We’ve had to fend for ourselves since we were really, young. You mean so much to me, even if we do fight over things, like clothes and guys. You’re my best friend, even if you try to tell me what to do all the time."
"If you concentrated on boys your own age, not older ones who I happen to be dating, we’d be fine," Rose laughed. "You look silly and childish when you chase after these older guys. I’ve told you that before."
"I won’t tell anyone what happened," Anna promised. "I can’t stand the idea of losing my older sister. We’ve been watching out for each other too long."
"You know what, Anna?" Rose said. "You can have my belt. It looks better on you anyway."