In the early 1980s, when I was still going steady with Jim Beam
straight-up and a beer back, I became part of an exchange program
between NOPD and a training academy for police cadets in Dade
County, Florida. That meant I did a limited amount of work in a
Homicide unit at the Miami P.D. and taught a class in criminal
justice at a community college way up on N.W. 27th Avenue, not far
from a place called Opa-Locka.
Opa-Locka was a gigantic pink stucco-and-plaster nightmare designed
to look like a complex of Arabian mosques. In the early a.m., fog
from either the ocean or the Glades, mixed with dust and carbon
monoxide, clung like strips of dirty cotton to the decrepit
minarets and cracked walls of the buildings. At night the streets
were lit by vapor lamps that glowed inside the fog with the dirty
iridescence that you associate with security lighting in prison
compounds. The palms on the avenues were blighted by disease, the
fronds clacking dryly in the fouled air. The yards in the
neighborhoods contained more gray sand than grass. Homes that could
contain little of value were protected by bars on the windows and
razor wire on the fences. Lowrider gangbangers, the broken mufflers
of their gas-guzzlers throbbing against the asphalt, smashed liquor
bottles on the sidewalks and no one said a word.
For me, it was a place where I didn't have to make comparisons and
where each dawn took on the watery hue of a tequila sunrise. If I
found myself at first light in Opa-Locka, my choices were usually
uncomplicated: I either continued drinking or entered an altered
state known as delirium tremens.
Four or five nights a week I deconstructed myself in a bar where
people had neither histories nor common geographic origins. Their
friendships with one another began and ended at the front door.
Most of them drank with a self-deprecating resignation and long ago
had given up rationalizing the lives they led, I suspect allowing
themselves a certain degree of peace. I never saw any indication
they either knew or cared that I was a police officer. In fact, as
I write these words today, I'm sure they recognized me as one of
their own -- a man who of his own volition had consigned himself to
Dante's ninth circle, his hand clasped confidently around a mug of
draft with a submerged jigger of whiskey coiling up from the
But there was one visitor to the bar whom I did call friend. His
name was Dallas Klein, a kid who in late '71 had flown a slick
through a blistering curtain of RPG and automatic weapons fire to
pick up a bunch of stranded LURPs on the Cambodian border. He
brought home two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a nervous tic in
his face that made you think a bee was buzzing around his left
Like me, he loved Gulf Stream Race Track and the jai alai fronton
up the road in Broward County. He also loved the craps table at a
private club in Hollywood, a floating poker game in Little Havana,
the dogs at Flagler, the trotters at Pompano, the Florida Derby at
Hialeah, the rows of gleaming slot machines clanging with a
downpour of coins on a cruise to Jamaica.
But he was a good kid, not a drunk, not mean-spirited or resentful
yet about the addiction that had already cost him a fiancée
and a two-bedroom stucco house on a canal in Fort Lauderdale. He
grinned at his losses, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, as though
a humorous acknowledgment of his problem made it less than it was.
On Saturdays he ate an early lunch of a hamburger and glass of milk
at the bar while he studied the Morning Telegraph, his
ink-black hair cut short, his face always good-natured. By one
o'clock he and I would be out at the track together, convinced that
we knew the future, the drone of the crowd mysteriously erasing any
fears of mortality we may have possessed.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, when the jacaranda trees and
bougainvillea were in bloom, Dallas strolled into the bar whistling
a tune. He'd picked three NFL winners that week and today he'd hit
a perfecta and a quinella at Hialeah. He bought a round of well
drinks for the house and had dinners of T-bones and Irish potatoes
brought in for him and me.
Then two men of a kind you never want to meet came through the
front door, the taller one beckoning to the bartender, the shorter
man scanning the tables, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the
darkness of the bar's interior.
"Got to dee-dee, Dave. Call me," Dallas said, dropping his fork and
steak knife in his plate, pulling his leather jacket off the back
of his chair.
He was out the back door like a shot.
He made it as far as a lavender Cadillac where a man as big as the
sky waited for him, his arms folded on his chest, his wraparound
mirror shades swimming with distorted images of minarets and broken
glass sprinkled along the top of a stucco wall.
The two men who had come in through the front of the bar followed
Dallas outside. I hesitated, then wiped my mouth with my napkin and
went outside, too.
The parking area had been created out of crushed building material
that was spiked with weeds. The wind was blowing hard, and the
royal palms out on the boulevard thrashed and twisted against a
perfect blue sky. The three men whom I did not know had formed a
circle around Dallas as though each of them had a fixed role he had
played many times before.
The driver of the Caddy had the biggest neck I had ever seen on a
human being. It was as wide as his jowls, his tie and collar pin
like formal dress on a pig. He chewed gum and gazed at the palm
trees whipping against the sky, as though he were disengaged from
the conversation. The man who had spoken to the bartender was the
talker. He wore polyester sports clothes and white loafers and
looked like a consumptive, his hair as white as meringue, his
shoulders stooped with bone loss, his face netted with the lines of
"Whitey is supposed to carry you for sixteen large?" he said. "That
ain't his money. He's paying a point and a half vig a week on that.
No, Dallas, you don't talk, you listen. Everybody appreciates what
you did for your country, but when you owe sixteen large, that war
hero shit don't slide down the pipe."
But the man who caught my eye was the short one. He seemed wrapped
too tight for his own body, the same way a meth addict seems to
boil in his own juices. His mouth was like a horizontal keyhole,
the corner of his upper lip exposing his teeth, as though he were
starting to grin. He listened intently to every word in the
conversation, waiting for the green light to flash, his eyes
flickering with anticipation.
The consumptive man rested his palm on Dallas's shoulder. "What?
You think we're being hard on you? You want Ernesto to drive us out
in the Glades so we can talk there? Whitey likes you, kid. You got
no idea how much he likes you, how kind you're being treated
"You gentlemen have a problem with my friend Dallas?" I
In the quiet I could hear the palm fronds rattling above the stucco
wall, a gust of wind tumbling a piece of newspaper past a spiked
"No, we don't got a problem," the short man said, turning toward
me, the sole of one shoe grinding on a piece of broken mortar. His
hair was peroxided, feathered on the back of his neck. He wore
platform shoes and a dark blue suit that was cut so the flaps stuck
out from his waist, and a silver shirt dancing with light, and a
silk kerchief tied around his throat. His eyes contained a cool
green fire whose source a cautious man doesn't probe.
"Dallas has a phone call," I said.
"Take a message," the short man said.
"It's his mother. She really gets mad when Dallas doesn't come to
the phone," I said.
"He's a cop," the driver of the Caddy said, removing his shades,
pinching the glare out of his eyes.
The short man and the man in polyester sports clothes took my
inventory. "You a cop?" the short man said, smiling for the first
"You never can tell," I replied.
"Nice place to hang out," he said.
"You bet. If you want a tab, I'll talk to the bartender," I
The short man laughed and accepted a stick of gum from the driver.
Then he stepped close to Dallas and spoke to him in a whisper, one
that caused the blood to drain out of Dallas's face.
After the three men had gotten back into their Caddy and driven
away, I asked Dallas what the short man had said.
"Nothing. He's a jerk. Forget it," he said.
"Whitey Bruxal. He runs a book out of a pizza joint in
"You're into him for sixteen grand?"
"I got a handle on it. It's not a problem."
Inside the bar, he pushed aside his food and ordered a Scotch with
milk. After three more of the same, the color came back into his
cheeks. He blew out his breath and rested his forehead on the heel
of his hand.
"Wow," he said quietly, more to himself than to me.
"What did that dude say to you?" I asked.
"One-one-five Coconut Palm Drive."
"I don't follow," I said.
"I have a six-year-old daughter. She lives with her grandmother in
the Grove. That's her address," he replied. He stared at me
blankly, as though he could not assimilate his own words.
Dallas invited me to his apartment the next evening and cooked
hamburgers for us on a hibachi out on a small balcony. Down below
were blocks and blocks of one-story houses with gravel-and-tar
roofs and yards in which the surfaces of plastic-sided swimming
pools wrinkled in the wind. The sun looked broken and red on the
horizon, without heat, veiled with smoke from a smoldering fire in
the Glades. Dallas showed me pictures of his daughter taken in
Orlando and in front of a Ferris wheel at Coney Island. One picture
showed her in a snowsuit sewn with rabbit ears that flopped down
from the hood. The little girl's hair was gold, her eyes blue, her
"What happened to her mom?" I said.
"She took off with a guy who was running coke from the Islands in a
cigarette boat. They hit a buoy at fifty knots south of Pine Key.
Get this. The guy flew a Cobra in 'Nam. My wife always said she
loved a pilot." He turned the burgers on the grill, his eyes
concentrated on his task.
I knew what was coming next.
"Had a note under my door from Whitey this morning. I might have to
take my little girl and blow Dodge," he said.
I cracked a beer and leaned on the railing. In the distance I could
see car lights flowing down a wide bend in an expressway. I sipped
from the beer and said nothing in reply to his statement.
"I made a salad. Why don't you dump it in a couple of bowls?" he
The silence hung between us. "I've got a couple of grand in a
savings account. You want to borrow it?" I said, then raised the
bottle to my mouth, waiting for the weary confirmation of the
frailty and self-interest that exists in us all.
"No, thanks," he said.
I lowered the bottle and looked at him.
"It's just a matter of doing the smart thing," he said. "I got to
think it through. Whitey's not a bad guy, he's just got his --
"What?" I said.
"His own obligations. Miami is supposed to be an open city. No
contract hits, no one guy gets a lock on the action. But nothing
goes on here that doesn't get pieced off to the New York families.
You see my drift?"
"Not really," I said, not wanting to know more about Dallas's
involvement with Miami's underworld.
"What a life, huh?" he said.
"Yeah," I replied. "Make mine rare, will you?"
"Rare it is, Loot," he said, squeezing the grease out of a patty,
wincing in the flare of smoke and flame.
I washed my hands before we ate. Dallas's work uniform hung inside
a clear plastic dry cleaner's bag on a hook in the bathroom, the
logo of an armored car company sewn above the coat pocket.
But Dallas did not blow Dodge. Instead, I saw him talking on a
street corner in Opa-Locka with Ernesto, the leviathan driver of
the lavender Cadillac. The two of them got in the Caddy and drove
away, Dallas's face looking much older than he was. Twice I asked
Dallas to go to the track with me, but he claimed he was not only
broke but entering a twelve-step program for people with a gambling
addiction. "I'll miss it, but everything comes to an end, right?"
Spring came and I disengaged from Dallas and his problems. Besides,
I had plenty of my own. I was trying to get through each morning
with aspirin, vitamin B, and mouth spray, but my lend-lease
colleagues at the Miami P.D. and the cadets in my class at the
community college were onto me. My irritability, the tremble in my
hands, my need for a vodka collins by noon became my persona. The
pity and ennui I saw in the eyes of others followed me into my
I went three weeks without a drink. I jogged at dawn on Hollywood
Beach, snorkeled at the tip of a coral jetty swarming with clown
fish, pumped iron at Vic Tanney's, ate seafood and green salads at
a surfside restaurant, and watched my body turn as hard and brown
as a worn saddle.
Then on a beautiful Friday night, with no catalyst at work, with a
song in my heart, I put on a new sports jacket, my shined loafers,
and a pair of pressed slacks, and joined the crew up in Opa-Locka
and pretended once again I could drop lighted matches in a gas tank
That's when I got my second look at the short man who worked as a
collector for Whitey Bruxal. He stood in the open doorway, scanning
the interior, forcing others to walk around him. Then he went to
the bar and spoke to the bartender, and I heard him use Dallas's
name. The bartender shook his head and occupied himself with
washing beer mugs in a tin sink. But the collector was not easily
discouraged. He ordered a 7Up on ice and began peeling a
hard-boiled egg on top of a paper napkin, wiping the tiny pieces of
shell off his fingernails onto the paper, his eyes on the
Stay out of it, I heard a voice say inside my head.
I went to the men's room and came back to my table and sat down.
The collector was salting his egg, chewing on the top of it
reflectively while he stared out the front door into the street,
his shoes hooked into the aluminum rails of the barstool. He wore
stonewashed jeans and a yellow see-through shirt and a porkpie hat
tipped forward on his brow. His back was triangular, like a martial
arts fighter's, his facial skin as bright and hard-looking as
I stood next to him at the bar and waited for him to turn toward
me. "Live in the neighborhood?" I asked.
"Right," he said.
"I never did catch your name."
"It's Elmer Fudd. What's yours?"
"I like those platform shoes. A lot of Superfly types are wearing
those these days. Ever see that movie Superfly? It's about
black dope pushers and pimps and white street punks who think
they're made guys," I said.
He brushed off his fingers on his napkin and pulled at an earlobe,
then motioned to the bartender. "Fix Smiley here whatever he's
drinking," he said.
"You see, when you give names to other people, it's not just
disrespectful, it's a form of presumption."
"'Presumption'?" he replied, nodding profoundly.
"Yeah, you're indicating you have the right to say whatever you
wish to other people. It's not a good habit."
He nodded again. "Right now I'm waiting on somebody and I need a
little solitude. Do me a favor and don't piss in my cage,
"Wouldn't dream of it," I said. "Were you in 'Nam? Dallas was. He's
a good kid."
The collector got off the barstool and combed his hair, his eyes
roving over the crooked smile on my face, the booze stains on my
shirt, the table-wet on the sleeves of my new jacket, the fact that
I had to keep one arm on the bar to steady myself. "I stacked time
in a place you couldn't imagine in your worst dreams," he
"Yeah, I've heard the bitch suite up at Raiford is a hard ride," I
He put away his comb and looked at his reflection in the bar
mirror. His cheeks were pooled with tiny pits, like the incisions
of a knifepoint. He placed a roll of breath mints by my hand. "No,
go ahead and take them. Gratis from Elmer Fudd. Enjoy."
My tenure with the exchange program was running out in June, and I
wanted to carry good memories of South Florida back to New Orleans.
I boat-fished out of Key West in the most beautiful water I had
ever seen. It was green, as clear as glass, with pools of indigo
blue in it that floated like broken clouds of ink. I visited the
old federal prison at Fort Jefferson on a blistering-hot day and
swore I could smell the land breeze blowing from Cuba. I slept in a
pup tent on a coral shelf above water that was threaded with the
smoky green phosphorescence of organisms that had no names. I saw
the ocean turn wine-dark under a sky bursting with constellations
and knew that the truth of Homer's line would never be diminished
But wherever I went, a frozen daiquiri winked at me from an outdoor
bar roofed by palm fronds; beaded cans of Budweiser protruded from
the ice in a fisherman's cooler; a bottle of Cold Duck clamped
between a woman's thighs burst alive with the pop of a cork and a
geyser of foam.
Delirium tremens or not, I knew I was in for the whole ride.
During my last week in Miami, I drove up to Opa-Locka to pay my bar
tab and buy a round for whoever was trying to escape the noonday
heat. The bar was dark and cool inside, the street out beyond the
colonnade baking under a white sun. I knocked back a brandy and
soda, counted my change, and prepared to go. Through the front
window I could see dust blowing along the pavement, heat waves
bouncing off a parked car, a bare-chested black man drilling a
jackhammer into the asphalt, his skin pouring sweat. I ordered
another brandy and soda and looked at the order-out menu on the
bar. Then I tossed the menu aside, dropped a half dollar into the
jukebox, and kicked it on up into overdrive with four inches of
Beam and a beer back.
By three-thirty I was seriously in the bag. Across the street, I
saw an armored car pull up in front of the bank. It was a
shimmering boxlike vehicle with a red-and-white paint job that
pulsed in the heat like a fresh dental extraction. Three armed
guards piled out, opened up the back, and began to lift big canvas
satchels with padlocks on the tops onto the pavement. One of the
guards was Dallas Klein.
I crossed the street, my drink in one hand, shading my eyes from
the glare with the other.
"Where you been, fellow? I've had to knock 'em back for both of
us," I said.
Dallas was standing in the shade of the bank, the armpits of his
gray shirt dark with moisture. "I'm on the job, here, Dave. Catch
you later," he said.
"What time you get off?"
"I said beat it."
"This is a security area. You're not supposed to be here."
"You've got things mixed up, podna. I'm a police officer."
"What you are is shit-faced. Now stop making an ass out of yourself
and go back in the bar."
I turned around and walked toward the colonnade, the sun like a wet
flame on my skin. I looked back over my shoulder at Dallas, who was
now busy with his work, hefting bags of money and carrying them
into the bank. My face felt small and tight, the skin dead,
freeze-dried in the heat.
"Something wrong, Dave?" the bartender asked.
"Yeah, my glass is empty. Double Beam, beer back," I said.
While he poured into a shot glass from a bourbon bottle with a
chrome nipple on it, I blotted the humidity out of my eyes with a
paper napkin, my ears still ringing from the insult Dallas had
delivered me. I looked back out the window at the armored car. But
the scene had suddenly become surreal, divorced from any of my
expectations about that day in my life. A white van came out of
nowhere and braked behind the armored car. Four men with cut-down
shotguns jumped out on the sidewalk, leaving the driver behind the
wheel. They were all dressed in work clothes, their hair and facial
features a beige-colored blur under nylon stockings.
"Call nine-one-one, say, 'Armed robbery in progress,' and give this
address," I said to the bartender.
I unsnapped the .25 automatic that was strapped to my right ankle.
When I got off the barstool, one side of the room seemed to
collapse under my foot.
"I wouldn't go out there," the bartender said.
"I'm a cop," I said.
I thought my grandiose words could somehow change the condition I
was in. But in the bartender's eyes I saw a sad knowledge that no
amount of rhetoric would ever influence. I walked unsteadily to the
front door and jerked it open. The outside world ballooned through
the door in a rush of superheated air and carbon monoxide. The
street I looked out upon was no longer a part of South Florida. It
was a wind-sculpted place in the desert, bleached the color of a
biscuit by the sun, home to carrion birds and jackals and
blowflies. It was the place that awaits us all, one we don't allow
ourselves to see in our dreams. The .25 auto felt as small and
light as plastic in my hand.
I positioned myself behind one of the Arabic columns under the
colonnade and steadied my automatic against the stone. "Police
officer! Put down your weapons and get on your faces!" I
But the men robbing the armored car did little more than glance in
my direction, as they would at a minor annoyance. It was obvious
their timing on the takedown of the car had gone amiss. The van had
arrived seconds later than it should have, allowing the guards time
to start carrying the canvas money satchels inside the bank. The
car guards and the elderly bank guard were down on their knees,
against the wall of the bank, their fingers laced behind their
heads. The robbers simply needed to pick up the satchels that were
within easy reach, head out of Opa-Locka, and dump the van, which
was undoubtedly stolen. A few minutes later, they could have
disappeared back into the anonymity of the city. But one of them
had gotten greedy. One of them had gone into the bank to retrieve
the satchels there, racking a round into the chamber of his
A teller was already pushing the vault door shut. The robber shot
him at point-blank range.
When the shooter emerged from the bank, he was dragging two
satchels that were whipsawed with blood, his pump propped against
"I said on your faces, you motherfuckers!" I shouted.
The first shotgun blast from the robbers on the sidewalk patterned
all over the column and the metal door of the bar. A second one
caved the window. Then the robbers were shooting at me in unison,
blowing dust and powdered stone in the air, peppering the metal
door with indentations that looked like shiny nickels.
I crouched at the bottom of the column, unable to move or return
fire without being chewed up. Then I heard someone shouting, "Go,
go, go, go!" and the sounds of the van doors slamming shut.
It should have been over. But it wasn't. As the van pulled away
from the curb, I was sure I heard the robber in the passenger seat
speak to Dallas. "You're a joke, man," he said. Then he extended
his shotgun straight out from the vehicle and blew most of Dallas
Klein's head off.
Excerpted from PEGASUS DESCENDING: A Dave Robicheaux Novel
© Copyright 2011 by James Lee Burke. Reprinted with permission
by Pocket Star, Inc. All rights reserved.