On the fifteenth of March, two hours before sunrise, an emergency medical technician named Jimmy Campo found a sweaty stranger huddled in the back of his ambulance. It was parked in a service alley behind the Stefano Hotel, where Jimmy Campo and his partner had been summoned to treat a twenty-two-year-old white female who had swallowed an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed and stool softener—in all respects a routine South Beach 911 call, until now.
The stranger in Jimmy Campo’s ambulance had two 35-mm digital cameras hanging from his fleshy neck, and a bulky gear bag balanced on his ample lap. He wore a Dodgers cap and a Bluetooth ear set. His ripe, florid cheeks glistened damply, and his body reeked like a prison laundry bag.
“Get out of my ambulance,” Jimmy Campo said.
“Is she dead?” the man asked excitedly.
“Dude, I’m callin’ the cops if you don’t move it.”
“Who’s with her up there—Colin? Shia?”
The stranger outweighed Jimmy Campo by sixty-five pounds but not an ounce of it was muscle. Jimmy Campo, who’d once been a triathlete, dragged the intruder from the vehicle and deposited him on the sticky pavement beneath a streetlight.
“Chill, for Christ’s sake,” the man said, examining his camera equipment for possible damage. Stray cats tangled and yowled somewhere in the shadows.
Inside the ambulance, Jimmy Campo found what he was looking for: a sealed sterile packet containing a coiled intravenous rig to replace the one that the female overdose victim had ripped from her right arm while she was thrashing on the floor.
The stranger struggled to his feet and said, “I’ll give you a thousand bucks.”
“When you bring her downstairs, lemme take a picture.” The man dug into the folds of his stale trousers and produced a lump of cash. “You gotta job to do, and so do I. Here’s a grand.”
Jimmy Campo looked at the money in the stranger’s hand. Then he glanced up at the third floor of the hotel, where his partner was almost certainly dodging vomit.
“Is she famous or somethin’?” Jimmy Campo asked.
The photographer chuckled. “Man, you don’t even know?”
Jimmy Campo was thinking about the fifty-two-inch high-def that he’d seen on sale at Brands Mart. He was thinking about his girlfriend on a rampage with his maxed-out MasterCard at the Dadeland Mall. He was thinking about all those nasty letters from his credit union.
“Whoever she is, she’s not dead,” he told the photographer. “Not tonight.”
“Cool.” The man continued to hold out the wad of hundreds in the glow of the streetlight, as if teasing a mutt with raw hamburger. He said, “All you gotta do, before loading her in the wagon, just pull down the covers and step away so I can get my shot. Five seconds is all I need.”
“It won’t be pretty. She’s a sick young lady.” Jimmy Campo took the crumpled money and smoothed it into his wallet.
“Is she awake at least?” the photographer asked.
“On and off.”
“But you could see her eyes in a picture, right? She’s got those awesome sea-green eyes.”
Jimmy Campo said, “I didn’t notice.”
“You really don’t know who she is? Seriously?”
“Who do you work for, anyway?”
“A limited partnership,” the man said. “Me, myself and I.”
“And where can I see this great picture you’re gonna take?”
“Everywhere. You’ll see it everywhere,” the stranger said.
Eighteen minutes later, Jimmy Campo and his partner emerged from the Stefano Hotel guiding a collapsible stretcher upon which lay a slender, motionless form.
The photographer was surprised at the absence of a retinue; no bodyguards or boyfriends or hangers-on. A lone Miami Beach police officer followed the stretcher down the alley. When the photographer began snapping pictures, the cop barely reacted, making no effort to shield the stricken woman from the flash bursts. That should have been a clue.
Sliding closer, the paparazzo intercepted the stretcher as it rolled with an oscillating squeak toward the open end of the ambulance. True to his word, Jimmy Campo tugged down the sheet and stepped away, leaving an opening.
“Cherry!” the photographer shouted at the slack face. “Cherry, baby, how ’bout a big smile for your fans?”
The young woman’s incurious eyes were open. They were not sea-green, mint-green, pea-green or any hue of green. They were brown.
“Goddammit,” the photographer growled, lowering his Nikon.
The woman on the stretcher grinned behind the oxygen mask and blew him a kiss.
Grabbing at Jimmy Campo’s arm, the photographer cried, “Gimme back my money!”
“Mister, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the paramedic, elbowing the sweaty creep back into the shadows.
Excerpted from STAR ISLAND © Copyright 2011 by Carl Hiaasen. Reprinted with permission by Knopf. All rights reserved.