Chapter Five: The Photographer
We hurt those we love.
He waited in the dark just one more moment. Watching. Breathing. Remembering.
Two flights and a long car ride in this unending rain blowing off the Atlantic like the sweat of a fighter refusing to go down. This stretch of road was like something out of fairy tale or a perfume commercial. God knows Josh knew enough about those things since they were his life. Snapshots of the stylish and sensuous. Yet most of the time they were simple fantasy, not some backdrop to a Hallmark card burning away into floating fragments.
There was this hesitation clinging to him like some kind of denim jacket. He couldn’t take it off no matter how hard he tried.
This could be bad.
Even worse than how he had left things. This beautiful—no, beyond beautiful, more like singular perfection—woman doused with tears and snot looking up at him with quivering lips. So desperate. Clinging to his leg like a prisoner. Declaring everything and more and begging. Literally begging in every way possible.
It took a certain type of man to leave a woman like that behind. Josh Worth was exactly that kind.
So what the hell am I doing here?
Guilt? Love? A combo of both?
The mansion was lit up like it was expecting guests or at least some reality TV show crew to be showing up any moment. Even though it was a little after two in the morning in Miami, Josh knew those lights never went off until the sun replaced them.
Bright lights big city.
He was old enough to remember watching Rico and Tubbs on the television. He was seven or eight years old but his non-existent parents didn’t care. Turn it on and let him go. So he loved Miami Vice. Josh simply didn’t ever expect or want to find himself in some episode.
Another breath. Okay. It was fine everything was fine this was no big deal. He’d been in that house before. Plenty of times. He knew the security codes and which door to open. He knew the rooms well and the beds inside them. He also knew the man who owned the house, the guy he’d never met, the one he’d been an idiot to ignore like someone out of the shot holding up a light or a prop.
Morales. The last name that everybody called him by. It wasn’t just a rumor anymore but pretty much a proven fact. Morales sold drugs and lots of them and this was one of his many houses and Carmella was one of his many women. So what was the big deal?
And why again am I here?
Josh didn’t need long to answer that question. He knew. He knew enough, at least.
“You don’t have a soul.”
Carmella’s last words before he left. He had walked out and driven off and heard the words follow him like the clinking cans on the back of a car belonging to newlyweds. He hadn’t thought of turning around that night. Not even once.
He was back. To apologize and to make things right.
Josh had been the one to reach out, to text, and to text again, and to keep it up until she finally answered.
Saturday night at 2. I’ll be here. Alone.
So Josh had arrived. Alone. He felt this warm gust of apprehension. Not because of Morales. No. He’d never gotten worried about him.
Josh simply didn’t know what Carmella might say.
Then again, he didn’t know what he was going to tell her either.
The most terrifying thing would be to tell her the truth.
“I dare you.”
Three words Josh loved to hear when he was a kid. They always resembled some kind of wimpy fighter stepping into the ring with him. There was no way he’d back down. Ever. Even if it meant near death.
Josh knew it wasn’t bravery that coursed through his veins. Stupidity was the word often used, but he knew he wasn’t some dimwit. Josh knew enough of those in life. Plenty of them. These complete morons, pretty much all guys, just sucking air and living life as if they were some character in a video game. Not the one playing the game but the one waiting to be turned on and picked and played out. Complete and utter fools.
As Josh stepped in the kitchen of the mansion, smelling that familiar lilac smell that always seemed to fill the first floor of this house, he thought about the dares and the morons. Josh wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t brave.
Maybe that was the word.
That was another good word. He wasn’t a fool because he always was being led ahead. Like tonight, he was usually pulled by his heart.
He tugged at his jeans that still felt too loose. Somehow Josh had lost some weight in the last few weeks, and it wasn’t like he was a candidate for some lose-the-fat reality show. But the busy nights and all the Carmella drama had made this whole thing of working out and eating a bit irrelevant. Women and work were far more intoxicating than any kind of meal or muscle might be.
Note to self. Get something really hideously awful for you to get a little meat back on your bones.
The lights were off but she was never downstairs anyway. Josh knew where to go.
“Good evening,” a voice said as the recessed lighting burst out above him. “Or maybe I should say good morning.”
Josh jerked back a bit and saw the short, round pug of a man who owned this house.
“Mr. Worth,” Morales said as he walked toward the long island standing between the two of them.
Josh remembered the famous line from Goldfinger.
“Do you expect me to talk?”
“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”
Morales examined him for a moment.
“Josh–you are a very, very stupid man. Good-looking yes. I guess. I don’t know. But I’ll give you that. But very stupid.”
She’s not here.
He suddenly knew this. Josh also knew that odds were high that he was going to die in the next few hours.
The hard edge of the wood countertop poked against his rear. Josh scanned the kitchen in a way he had never done before. To see if anybody else was around. To see if Morales had any kind of weapon. Then to see if there was any kind of way out.
All three things were negatives.
“You look surprised. Ah how we trust these little things.”
Pudgy fingers held on to a cell phone with a pink case that Josh recognized.
“Where is she?”
“What?” Morales said. “No greeting? Nothing?”
Once again Josh tried to scan for something or anything. He knew enough about the guy facing him to decide not to run. Morales wasn’t alone. That was certain.
“Do you know that when I was young—just eight or nine—I ran around town with a bunch of older kids. Hoodlums as the neighborhood called them. This was in the bad part of Miami, in the places the movies and television shows never bother to highlight. I remember once after we vandalized some older guy’s house—he had to be one hundred years old or something—he caught us and brought us back to his house and I swear that night I thought I was going to die.”
Josh always assumed Morales would have more of an accent. Perhaps sounding like Scarface or at least some really good druglord. This guy only sounded like some frustrated owner of a burrito restaurant.
“This old guy made us pay for the damages we’d done on his property. He made certain that we understood that it was his property. We had to stay for hours cleaning up and working for him. He was like some kind of Nazi, and I really believed he could have hurt us.”
Morales walked around the island. The loose, white pants and button-down beach shirt looked casual in the way a sporty Mercedes Benz might.
“Now my question, Mr. Worth. How exactly are you going to pay for the damages against my property?”
Josh glanced behind him and saw a set of wine bottles in some elaborate rack. He knew there was a wine cellar in the basement. This was simply for show, for the wine-to-go drive through.
The high forehead and round face showed off Morales’s dark tan. He stepped within a few feet of Josh.
“You’re a weak man, Mr. Worth. I know one when I see one. You take pictures of mostly naked women and you sleep with them and you think that accolades and getting laid make you strong but you are incredibly weak.”
For a brief moment, Morales looked down and then reached into his loose pocket to grab his small phone. Someone had sent him a message he was reading now.
One of the hands behind Josh’s back clawed at the counter and then found the thing he’d spotted in the corner of his eye. He shoved it in his back jeans pocket.
“Where is Carmella?” Josh asked.
“I love your sense of loyalty. You steal from me and yet you want to know where the goods are you stole.”
“Where is she?” he repeated.
“Oh, I don’t know. Honestly. I do know where her phone happens to be. You know our Carmella. Such a fragile, unpredictable little thing. She called me from someone else’s phone from Asheville today. From some kind of grove or something, babbling on and behaving like a sixth grader.”
“What are you going to do about her?” Josh asked.
“You haven’t even asked what I’m going to do about you.”
“I don’t need to.”
Morales gave a nod and then took a wine bottle off the large counter. He just stared at the unopened bottle, then gave a laugh.
“Nothing. That’s how I’m handling Carmella. You know her. Her gifts. Right? Why would I do anything to prevent her from using them? Once she hears-and sees—and yes she’ll see what happens to you—then she’ll have to come back around to know for sure. Once she believes what can happen to men like you–she’ll come back around. They always do “
The metal in his back pocket poked at him. He couldn’t let Morales or anybody else see it.
It was his one and only key to somehow getting out of this mess.
There’s no ability to retouch or retake this Josh my boy.
The rumble of the big towncar plodding through the dark made him think he was headed to the airport. Another early morning jaunt with his head barely there with a hangover not having time to settle in since it was so damn early. That’s what it felt like being in the back seat. Except now there was some nearly bald-headed guy with a chiseled chin looking ahead as he held a gun in his lap. Another robotic idiot drove the towncar.
Guess Morales doesn’t want to get stains on his kitchen tiles.
Josh couldn’t keep up, couldn’t compute, couldn’t try to figure out where this was headed. He knew the end, of course. His body decomposing somewhere. But how and where and when—yeah. His mind kept trying to figure that out. All while another part of him poked and prodded.
This was crazy. This was all insane. This was all about some girl. Some woman. Some really attractive lady. How many did Morales have in his life? That had been the question Josh asked over and over again. The reality that helped justified him being with someone else’s woman.
Now he was walking a plank. Well, maybe being driven to its edge.
For some crazy reason, he could hear Prince singing in his ears. No, not singing, but gurgling like he does at the beginning of “When Doves Cry.” It’s insane but then again, so was Carmella. She loved her some Prince. She used to jam it in the mansion Josh had just showed up in.
“He doesn’t like Prince,” Carmella once said about Morales.
“Love him,” Josh had told her.
Because come on . . . who doesn’t love Prince? Well, the 80’s version, the kind that landed him on the map before he got complicated and weird.
Carmella would turn up the music and they could barely hear each other above Prince’s voice.
Now on his last drive and last breath and last hour, Josh heard Prince again.
He thought of Carmella. Then about what Morales said.
How’d I’d get to this point?
“Where are we going?” he asked the guy next to him.
“Listen, just let me go. I won’t do anything.”
The beat and the noise and the voices continued to bang around his head.
Josh moved his right hand and slipped it in his pocket. The door was on his right side so he was fortunate he could do this unnoticed. The big incredible Hulk next to him continued to sit facing forward still as a rock with the gun looking like a piece of pie a kid might be bringing for his grandmother.
His heart didn’t just beat. It clawed down and ripped stuff apart. It shredded everything it could.
That was the answer.
That was the answer he told himself again.
“Where are we going?” Josh asked.
The landscape of Miami was slowly turning into Florida countyside. The driver faced forward. This beast of a man did the same.
“Seriously I have to take a leak,” Josh said.
A glance and then another ignoring look.
He could picture Carmella dancing naked on a bed.
“But I mean to tell you. There’s something else—the afterworld.”
Carmella singing Prince.
Carmella dancing around on top of four-hundred-dollar sheets.
Carmella getting him killed.
Josh held his breath for a moment.
I can’t I won’t I’m not able to.
But the breaths continued one and two and three and then he shut his eyes for a moment and looked out the window and remembered something better something more simple something far more lighter.
His hand gripped the handle of the corkscrew.
“Nothing gonna let the elevator break us down.”
Glancing over, Josh saw the big guy oblivious.
His right hand and arm flung around like some kind of catapult. The foot-long spiraling corkscrew caught the big guy square in the base of his larynx. Josh jammed it hard and kept pushing and thrust the big guy back against the seat as he coughed and gagged and spit and died.
The driver turned and shouted and started to slow down and somehow Josh felt out of his mind and body and soul as his left hand grabbed the loose gun from the hand of the guy next to him. He pulled the corkscrew back out of the thrashing guy’s neck and then he quickly batted it against the driver’s head doing little or nothing at all except sending him ducking and the car slowing down and swerving right.
The sound of thick, coated choking could be heard next to him. Josh ignored it as he dropped the corkscrew and then grabbed the hair of the driver and pulled and kept pulling and kept pulling and then
Turning rolling flying diving dying
The car was somehow airborne and Josh knew he was going to die but at least he got the guys trying to do the same to him.
Coughing spitting pushing falling.
Josh landed on his side in some field off the road they’d been driving on. He could taste the gritty salt of the nearby ocean in his mouth. The ground was soft—they were close to the shores obviously. Darkness swirled around him as he fought to keep them open, to keep his head from spinning away from him, to keep moving to get away from the car.
In the action thriller, the vehicle he was leaving would blow up behind him, but instead there was just the hum of a late night/early morning breeze.
A few cuts but nothing too bad.
He started to get his wits around him so he started to walk faster. Soon he was jogging, looking behind him. But he doubted either of the guys in the car was going to follow him. He’d heard glass crashing as they tumbled—maybe the driver had gone through the front windshield. The other guy . . .
I’m going to be dreaming about him ‘till the day I die.
Josh managed to get back on the road, some cracked and narrow piece of deserted asphalt that he doubted anybody else would be driving on anytime soon. That’s why they’d come way out there. Somewhere along this road, they were going to dispose of his corpse.
The moon was bright enough to allow him to easily jog and see his surroundings.
For ten—twenty—thirty minutes maybe, Josh kept his pace steady until he saw the figure in front of him standing in the center of the road. A light gray suit seemed to almost sparkle under the cold blue falling down on it. Josh stopped, almost skidding a bit as he reeled a bit from the picture.
Did I get a concussion?
He was seeing things, that was obvious. His grandfather wasn’t standing there in front of him. Obviously. Papa had been dead for over twenty years now. Yet the figure, so tall with that striking white hair, stood in front of him, wearing the same suit he’d been buried in.
When Miami mobsters try to kill you and then you take them out and flip over their car, this is what happens, idiot.
He knelt down and then put his head between his knees. He didn’t just close his eyes. He tried to wring them out like some kind of wet washcloth. When he opened them again, the splintering afterglow lasted a moment before his eyesight went back to normal.
Sure enough, the tall, elderly man in the gray suit was gone.
Josh let out a sigh and then turned around to see
“HAVE YOU NOT LEARNED ANYTHING YOU IDIOT?”
The voice out of nowhere seemed to punch him in the gut. His eyes wandered and then he saw his grandfather, still towering over him even though he was several inches over six feet himself.
“WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO JOSHIE AND WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU GOING?”
It sounded the way he remembered but it also seemed to blare inside and outside of his mind. Josh could see the figure—the ghost or the fantasy or the shock-induced apparition—starting to walk toward him. Not in some kind of threatening way but it didn’t matter.
Josh started to run again. Away. Far away. His legs moved faster and he was sprinting and remembering the days when he used to run track.
He didn’t look back. He didn’t slow down, not for a while.
When he finally couldn’t breathe and couldn’t rush anymore, he continued at a fast walk. He refused to look behind him. He didn’t want to see if his imaginary grandfather had followed him.
If he’s still there, that’s fine. I don’t care. I just gotta find someone and get out of this place.
Not just this city. He was going to leave this state, too.
He needed to go to Asheville, North Carolina. To find Carmella. To make sure she was okay.
To see if she’d take him back.
To see if she was alive to do so.
The stretch of I-95 was long and it felt even longer with the rain coming down.
Josh had been on the road several hours. He was borrowing this car from one of his party buddies in the Miami area. Borrowing for several hundred bucks he’d given Murray. It was a Jeep Wrangler but it wasn’t one of those decked-out, customized jobs that he saw driving around. This one was vintage only in terms of the years and the mileage and the rust. Murray had told him it wasn’t in the best condition, but also said he thought it could make it to Asheville.
Murray had also asked about the blood on Josh’s pants and shirt. Josh had told him not to ask that again.
The guys taking him last night hadn’t bothered to take his wallet or phone. Maybe that had been deliberate. Maybe they weren’t going to shoot him or cut his throat. Maybe somehow they would have made it seem like it was his own fault. Then again, maybe it was the middle of the night and the guys were tired and stupid.
Josh hadn’t used either his phone or any credit cards yet. He knew enough to know those sorts of things could be traced and tracked down very easily. The directions to get to the city of Asheville weren’t difficult. Once there, he could try to figure out what “grove” might be referring to.
Even with the music playing in the background, quite loud in fact, Josh still couldn’t force the thoughts out of his mind. If he was someone who believed in God, he’d be continuing to thank him now for the mess he got out of last night. But Josh didn’t believe in God or a higher power or anything like that.
I believe in corkscrews that can do a lot of damage to someone’s throat.
The images and moments replayed in his mind. He couldn’t get rid of them. He couldn’t stop hearing that sickly gagging, coughing sound. Couldn’t stop feeling the tumbling of the car, feeling weightless and fearing he was about to die. Couldn’t stop thinking of Carmella.
Am I just wanting her more because she’s suddenly out of reach?
It would have been very typical of Josh. He couldn’t count how many times someone had called him selfish in the past five years. Well, selfish was the sweet term. There were lots worse ones, mainly from some of the women he’d met and photographed and slept with and said goodbye to. Many didn’t care. Many treated it simply as part of life. It was something fun, some kind of fantasy they could indulge in. But a few got a little too emotional and into all of it.
Carmella . . . Was she different?
He didn’t know. At least Josh could drive North to find out. He could simply pat himself on the back and try to forget about the whole corkscrew thing.
“I would be thanking your maker.”
Josh slowed down a bit and turned around to see the backseat. Nobody was there, but the voice sure sounded like it had been spoken in his ear. It was like he could feel the warm breath of his grandfather. He could still smell the wine on his breath. The ailing man had believed in God and prayed to him all the time but also knew the healing power of merlot. Josh didn’t find it hypocritical. No, he thought of it as more comical. The old soldier dying of Emphysema sitting in a wheelchair and trying to walk on two crutches: a Bible and a big bottle of red wine.
Why he saw Papa last night, Josh didn’t know. He hadn’t thought of him in a long time. He hadn’t thought of many of his family, to be honest.
It was easy to escape the memories of yesterday when you’re so busy you forget what city you’ll be waking up in tomorrow.
It’s no cliché to people living this kind of life.
The rain fell on the straight road with cars going ten miles an hour slower than they might. The storm had come out of nowhere. Josh looked at his phone on the seat next to him but believed it had no power. He wasn’t going to check, but there were no signs of life on the device.
What if he lied?
Morales might have lied. That’s true. But at least he’s far away from him.
He’s going to know this is where you’re going.
That might be true again, but Josh would be looking out for anybody. This time he wouldn’t be so stupid, so gullible.
Maybe she was in on it.
There’s no way. Josh knew Carmella might be a lot of things but she didn’t want him gone. Not that way. She loathed the man she was attached to. The man who had her handcuffed to his life. Only occasionally did Morales actually open the door and see Carmella. But she was his prisoner regardless.
Nobody’s going to imprison me.
The rain on the glass seemed to tap all around like the zombies on The Walking Dead trying to get to the hero stranded in the car. Josh wasn’t going to let them bite him. He’d get out of this storm and he’d find Carmella and then . . .
That’s the question.
He never thought too far ahead in the future and he wasn’t going to start now. It was about today. It was about driving and getting to Asheville and then figuring out where she might be.
“You’ll never learn. You need to take mistakes and make them right.”
This time Josh refused to look in the backseat. He could see turning around and seeing his grandfather in that gray suit holding a bottle of wine in one hand and then a corkscrew in the other. Laughing. Laughing because it’s the same bloody, grisly corkscrew Josh had just used.
He turned up the music on the radio. It was a classics station playing a song he’d heard over and over again in his life. But for some reason he suddenly didn’t really like hearing it.
“Who are you? Who who who who?”
Josh still didn’t know for sure. One day down the road, down that part of the road he couldn’t see and didn’t think about, he might find out. But right now Josh didn’t need to know. He didn’t want to know.
He knew he wouldn’t like the answer.