"Time can stand still ... it did happen all at once. A man on the roof, the reflection in the bookstore window, a rifle, the buzz in my ear, glass shattering all around me, pain ripping into my shoulder, tearing into my side, the ground coming up to meet me, greet me. And the girl. Running. Running to the back of the bookstore, fading away, fading from sight. Gone." And so begins Key West Conspiracy, a semi tongue-in-cheek novel about retired spy, John Carter Jones, in the wrong place at the wrong time, a completely uninvolved and accidental victim of an assassination attempt. Coincidence and confusion continue to follow him, and he soon becomes the intended murder target of four separate individuals. Things go from bad to worse as our hero survives, but the bodies pile up around him, and despite his repeated efforts to remove himself from the situation and return to retirement, he repeatedly finds himself squarely in the center of the action. And finally, no longer targeted for murder by individuals, but by a powerful political conspiracy. A conspiracy which reveals that certain industrialists are pulling all of the strings behind the scenes of America's spy system, playing a deadly game that will determine the next President of the United States. A game they call Machiavellan Machinations. And they have planned for everything, every single contingent. Everything, that is, except perhaps, for the sarcastic, irreverent, self-denigrating, and more than slightly skewed Mr. John Carter Jones.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Steve Gerson studied fiction in the MFA Creative Writing Program, and Key West Conspiracy is his first published novel.
TIME CAN stand still... it did happen all at once. A man on the roof, the reflection in the bookstore window, a rifle, the buzz in my ear, glass shattering all around me, pain ripping into my shoulder, tearing into my side, the ground coming up to meet me, greet me. And the girl. Running. Running to the back of the bookstore, fading away, fading from sight. Gone.
Fade to black. And back. The light comes on slowly, something resembling a nurse hovers over me.
"Welcome to the world."
I didn't know my next line, hadn't studied hard enough. So I guess I just lay there, with that idiot savant look on my face. Minus the savant.
"You're at Key West Community Hospital. And I hope you're not superstitious. It's Friday the thirteenth."
Still didn't know my line. Still had the same look. I could tell, because you can always tell when someone is looking at you like you're an idiot.
"You've been out for two days."
I don't have God damned amnesia, God damn it. Don't be telling me where I am, better damn well not be telling me who I am. I know who I am and where I am, you little twit, and I don't give a shit what day it is and I don't really give a shit where I am, all I really do want to know is how the hell I got here. Just what the hell happened out there? What happened? Why? And why the hell was it me? Fortunately, I didn't have the energy for all that. Instead, I just lay there and continued to look stupid. I must have been very good at it.
"You were the victim of a random shooting, Mr. Jones. Apparently, some crazy lunatic on the roof of the Duval House just started shooting for no reason at all. You were shot in your shoulder and in your side. Then a concussion when your head hit the sidewalk. That, along with the loss of blood put you into shock. Now, two days later, here we are. Voila!"
"I don't understand?"
"I'm here, not there."
And then I was nowhere. Unconscious again.
I'm on the most crowded street in the universe, and it's totally empty. Millions of people are missing, the street is ten times wider than it should be, there are t-shirt shops and bars, bars and t-shirt shops, t-shirt shops, and bars. I'm looking through the bookstore window at the latest best seller by the guru of the minute involving some type of co-dependent self-help semi-religious psycho babble something or other. There are thousands of people in the bookstore, all lined up like sheep coming back to the pen. They have very small brains and they unravel their very valuable wool coats to pay for the very valueless book, and the guru sits in the corner signing autographs, tupping each little lamb in its turn. I look away in disgust, look back, begin to berate myself for my boorish behavior, my bestial voyeurism. My eyes unfocus. Focus. Unfocus. I'm looking simultaneously in two directions, but only at one spot. Straight ahead. At the glass. Through the glass. And behind me, up high.
A reflection. There's a man with a gun over there. What he's doing ain't exactly clear. The music disappears but the man is still there, on the roof behind me. Dressed entirely in black, long pants, turtleneck sweater, baggy black leather windbreaker, black sneakers, probably black underwear. Not exactly your everyday Key West kind of fashion statement. In front of me, through the glass, a woman, a beautiful woman. Naturally. Then... again, all hell breaks loose. A bullet whizzes by, I hear the buzz, hear the glass shattering, but I see her. I see her just fine. She's ducking. Ducking behind me. A second bullet connects, I'm going down, I'm going down and so is she. She's ducking the gunman. She's fucking ducking from the gunman behind me. There's no shock in her eyes, not frightened out of her wits. Hell, she's not even surprised. The bitch is ducking behind me. She's using me as a screen! That son of a bitch, daughter of a bastard, whatever, she's using me as a screen, wants me to get shot, me to get shot, not her. A third bullet, I'm hit again, I hit the floor, my head hits the floor, bounces, bounces again. The woman, she recedes, the beautiful woman recedes, further and further, and she's gone. And I'm alone.
And I'm awake. Some dream. Memory. Both. A little hazy, slightly surreal, maybe even a little warped. Like me. But a memory. Some cold bitch is about to get killed and she figures better me than her. And we're not talking damsel in distress here, that was an assassination attempt, pure and simple. And the target just couldn't be bothered to find a better alternative than me getting shot to pieces. An assassination attempt, it didn't make any sense. Maybe in some second rate piece of spy vs. spy pulp, but not here, not on Duval Street. Not in Key West. It's just not done.
"Nice to see you're awake. I've been by a couple of times, already, but you're obviously a late sleeper."
Five foot eight inches small, bleached blond hair and the requisite lisp. If he was a friend of mine, he was a new one, made in the last two days, and I just didn't know anything about it yet. Had to find out sooner or later.
"And you are...?"
"Inspector Steve Stevens."
Only in Key West!
"Mind if I ask you a few questions, Mr. Jones?"
"Does it matter?"
"In that case it was sunny, cloudless, ninety degrees with a slight breeze. All in all a very unusual August day, wouldn't you say?"
"No reason for sarcasm, Mr. Jones."
No reason? No reason for sarcasm?!? I lived for sarcasm!
"Rhymes are okay?"
No. "Sorry. I'm always a little testy after being shot and unconscious for two days. Just a personal quirk I guess."
"Are you shot often, Mr. Jones?"
Stevens wore very expensive linen shorts, a linen v-neck tee shirt, and a short linen blousy jacket with raglan silk bottom and raglan silk sleeves, all in a matching cream color, with matching leather huarache shoes and no socks. Of course. But hey, things are different down here at the end of the world. Very, very different.
How different? Well, maybe I'm wrong, maybe not so different after all. I mean, like most police officers, Stevens didn't wear much jewelry. From what I could tell, nothing more than a gold Rolex and that very simple wedding band. Wedding band?
"Strange question to ask the victim of a random shooting, don't you think so, Inspector Steve Stevens?"
I was so very proud of myself just then, it would have been so easy, ssso easy, Inssspector Sssteve Ssstevensss.
"Random shooting, Mr. Jones? High powered rifle with scope, no serial number, of course no fingerprints. Leather jacket, turtleneck, pants, all left right there on the roof with the rifle, does that sound like a lunatic firing into a crowd to you, Mr. Jones? Does that really sound like a random shooting to you, Mr. Jones?"
Black. He hadn't said black. I imagine I was supposed to. Then he would know that I knew more than I was telling. But I didn't. Black? Was that more dream or memory, warped perspective or accurate recall? Regardless, Stevens was moving in the wrong direction. I wasn't involved, it wasn't me that the gun was aimed at. But helping the police was not high on my list of things to do, not today, at least. As long as everyone, with a few notable exceptions, of course, was convinced that it was a random shooting, then there was at least a chance that two of the notable exceptions might still be out there. Assassin and target, both, no reason to run if no one is looking for you. Well, maybe the target had a reason to run, but she didn't look like the running kind. No, I wasn't going to help the police today. I really wanted to deal personally with those two. After all, I think getting shot at is about as personal as you can get.
"Rat a tat, tat? Is that right, Inspector, is that what a random shooting sounds like? I mean, how would I know what a random shooting sounds like?"
"Please, Mr. Jones. A grunt disobeys a lieutenant's orders and saves his entire platoon. He then proceeds to beat said lieutenant to within an inch of his life. But, of course, that's just speculation. No witnesses, lots of alibis. But the grunt is immediately discharged, anyway, honorably, despite the lieutenant's permanent disabilities, and finds instant employment in various organizations within our government, the C.I.A. yes, not the Secret Service or the F.B.I., yes the N.S.A. and a few others with initials most of the public has never heard of. How do you like the story so far, Mr. Jones? Then there's that R & D firm, no, not the research and development one, the other one, the one that couldn't possibly exist here in the good old U.S. of A., right, Mr. Jones? So this grunt, well, he's eventually credited with ten kills. Seven successful 'terminations without prejudice' is the correct term, I believe, the other three, 'field decisions?', is that the expression? Then there are the rumors of over a dozen more, but of course, again, no proof, no witnesses. But this time there's just too much heat from somewhere in D.C., so the grunt and his employer come to terms, a mutually agreed upon retirement here in Key West. Now, Mr. Jones... Does this sound to you like a man who might not have at least one enemy, somewhere, a professional enemy, perhaps? Does this sound to you like a man who could get shot and not know how it happened? Or why? Mr. Jones?"
Son of a bitch. I had underestimated the bastard. Had to figure a new way to think about him. And new curses, too. But it made sense, if you can't check out the suspect, check out the victim. Still, he was overestimating me, I didn't have a clue as to what the hell was going on. Not beyond the fact that a he was shooting at a she. Although I certainly planned to find some. Clues. My big problem now was to convince the nice Inspector of my very real ignorance, to get him off my back, because it would be a whole hell of a lot easier to go about the business of becoming un-ignorant without this cream colored pansy all over my ass.
"Sorry about that, Inspector, I do apologize. I've been thinking some very unflattering things about you. Narrow minded and bigoted, even."
"I'll live. Now will you tell me what's going on?"
There was no way I was going to convince him, no way at all. He had the kind of eyes that never blink and he hadn't bothered to shift his stance even once from the moment he entered the room. I could have been deaf, dumb and blind and he still wouldn't believe that I didn't have the answers. There was only one option, pretend to pass out. But I somehow doubted he'd buy it.
"Not a chance, Mr. Stevens, not chance."