An Orange by Any Other Name
Cracker Key, my home, may be the biggest lie in the Gulf of Mexico: just two words, and neither one’s true. First, it was founded by and mostly populated by Northerners, either seasonal visitors or retirees. I might be the only genuine Florida native who ever lived here. Second, it’s not a damn key. See, a key forms on top of a coral reef. This is basically a sandbar anchored by condos.
It’s still beautiful, though, especially if you find the secret areas without the crowds. If you get to McGee Circle—it’s not easy—and go down a one-lane dirt road that starts at the bird sanctuary no hunting sign, you’ll dead-end at a driftwood-colored shack with a tin roof, right on the ocean. It’s a hundred dollar hut with a million dollar view.
The kitchen window gave me a clear view over the sea grapes of a red two-door coupe bumping its way to a stop beside my big avocado-colored Buick. The vixen who peeled herself out of it tried just two mincing, awkward steps on the sand before taking off her high heeled sandals, tossing them back in her car and going bare-pawed. Point for common sense.
She walked up onto the porch, lifting her hand toward the door to knock, then stopping. She pulled it back, fussed nervously with her tail, then went through the same motions again. And again. My patience ran out on the third run-through. I marched to the door and swung it open. “Can I help you?”
“Oh!” She jumped back. “I…um, I’m not sure I’m at the right house. I’m looking for Mr. Fixer?”
It’s not hard for a young vixen to make herself pretty, but this one didn’t have to put in much effort. Swimsuit model curves, sunset fur capped with strawberry blonde hair, emerald eyes even I could get lost in for a second. “Fixer. It’s a nickname, not a last name, and congratulations. You found me.” I held the screen door open.
“Oh.” She stared down at me, and I could see her daydream of a handsome knight errant deflate like a punctured tetherball. A chubby squirrel woman in her late forties rarely met anyone’s ideal of a romance hero.
We stayed frozen that way for a good four seconds until I sighed. “You coming in or not?”
Swallowing, she nodded once, flashing a sheepish smile and stepping past me.
I let the screen door slam shut, and walked into the kitchen. “Can I get you anything? I have…” I looked in the refrigerator. “Water, orange juice, and iced tea. And bourbon. And bourbon with orange juice or iced tea.”
“Iced tea, please. Thank you.” She’d stopped in the center of the sitting room, looking around at my bric-a-brac: bookshelves, motel-quality paintings I should be doing a better job of keeping out of the sunlight, sad plants I should be doing a better job of keeping in the sunlight.
I scooped ice into two big Tervis tumblers and filled them up with sweet sun tea, then motioned the vixen to follow me over to the couch. I handed her a glass when she sat down.
“How much do you know about Orange Blossom Estates?”
“Let me see.” I sipped my tea, thinking. It rang a dim bell, at least. “That’s what some real estate baron from Ohio plans to call a thousand acres of orange groves and cabbage palms after he replaces them all with tract homes, right?” It was close to twenty miles inland. The name followed our grand Floridian tradition of naming new subdivisions after whatever you’d bulldozed to build them.
“Barton Development, yes. That’s what they plan. But they can’t do it unless the biggest grove owner, Roy Albrott, sells. That’s over three hundred acres. Twenty-six thousand trees. Without that land, the project can’t happen.”
I’d heard of Albrott Citrus, too; anyone who looked at what they were throwing into their supermarket carts would have. The Albrotts were a true old Florida family, with all the good and bad that implied. “And you’re looking for a way to encourage Roy to sell, I’m guessing.”
“No, you misunderstand. He wants to sell. We want to sell. I’m Albrott’s daughter.”
That brought me up short. I didn’t have much love for house farms, so I’d already started searching for semi-polite words to decline the job. “Aren’t the Albrotts rabbits?”
“I’m adopted. And he’s the only Albrott left, after his wife and son died last year.” The vixen sighed, leaning toward me. “We refused their first offer. We expected they’d just come back with a better one. But we came back from an out-of-town trip to find the land had been flooded with…I don’t know what, but it’s unspeakable. And the very next day Barton had inspectors out to declare the groves contaminated. They’re offering us a fraction of their first offer now.”
“So you think they’ve deliberately sabotaged the deal.”
“There’s no other explanation. But the police are barely treating it like a crime. You know the local politicians here—they’ve never heard of a development project they’re not fully behind. Albrott might be a big name in citrus, but citrus is nothing next to real estate.”
“Got it.” She was right, and that was a problem. Sunshine State politicos would have Albrott’s back in any other battle, but not this one. And frankly, as little love as I had for developers, old Florida money tended to bring a whole lot of baggage. “But tell me why your father wanted to sell in the first place. He’s been in the business for nearly as long as God’s been making oranges.”
“Some days he wants to sell, some days he doesn’t, Miss Fixer.” She sighed. “He’s been…declining. He can’t take care of the land on his own, and I don’t want to take over the business myself. I’ve been managing his affairs for him, trying to wind down operations, but he deserves a fair price.”
“If you can find proof of what they’ve done, I can take it to the family lawyers. They’re building a case against Barton as it is, but I want a smoking gun.”
I pursed my lips, staring into my own tea. I should have taken myself up on the bourbon. “All right. I’ll dig around and see what I can see, Miss…?”
“No promises, Laura. I might not find anything you want to hear. And I’ll need money up front before I start.”
She nodded, reaching for her purse. “All right.” She started to pull out a slim checkbook.
I held up a hand. “Sorry. It’s a cash business.”
Laura paused, ears lowering. “I don’t carry much cash on me, Miss Fixer.”
“I understand. You know where to find me when you get it.” I smiled. “More tea?”
I still had a few friends in high places and more than a few in low ones, but people always underestimated the value of friends in medium places. They had just enough pull to get me access I shouldn’t have, and just enough resentment to give it to me. For instance, letting me into files at the county records office. I was chatting in the break room with the chain-smoking clerk who’d brought me the folders I wanted to see. “So your inspector went out there because Barton called your department out?”
“Yep.” The rat snorted, lighting a new cigarette off the smoldering stub of the last one. “Larry was ranting about the smell for a week. Said it was like somebody’d drilled for oil and struck a shit geyser.”
She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. A good chunk of Albrott’s land had flooded with partially treated sewage—worse than if it’d been raw. It wasn’t just shit, it was shit steeping in muriatic acid. “Any theories as to how a working citrus grove suddenly became a wastewater marsh?”
“Don’t need a theory.” She shrugged. “Unless there’s a sewer plant out there nobody told us about, somebody drove it there in tanker trunks and dumped it.”
“Huh. And you said the Albrotts called about this, too.”
“I said the daughter called. By ‘called’ I mean screamed like a banshee with a butt plug. Threatenin’ to sue us, Barton, you name it.”
I pushed the folders back to her and rested my chin on my hands. “I can see why she’d be mad about your report. But you think Larry’s a straight shooter, huh?”
She snorted again. “Oh, that fucker’d sell his first-born for a strip steak and a fifth of bourbon. But unless he’s in it with the daughter, this is real. You haven’t been out there to check it out yourself?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
That earned me a grin, and a puff of a smoke ring. “Well, that’s your next stop, sugar. If it’s what he says, it ain’t gonna be subtle.”
I didn’t get any closer to the ruins of the grove than the gravel road going past them. I didn’t have to. I’d been half-expecting a poop lake from the flood waters, but it was worse than that. It was poop quicksand: thick, noxious muck swamping neat rows of now-wilting orange trees. And good God, the smell would knock a buzzard off a gut wagon.
So this confirmed what Inspector Larry had said, and what Laura had said. But that raised one big question: Good Lord, why? If Barton Development wanted to pressure Roy Albrott into selling, they could have pulled strings at a half-dozen county departments. Threatened him through his daughter, if they wanted to get dirtier. Hell, they could have just started building around his land, leaving themselves as the only practical buyer when he kicked the bucket. It sure wouldn’t be the first time somebody’d built a Florida subdivision right around a stubborn land owner.
I was starting to come up with a crazy theory, but I’d need to do some digging. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to dig in actual shit. I’d just have to talk to companies that moved shit.
First, though, I needed to find someone in a medium place at the Probate Court.
The only people I knew at the courthouse were on the criminal side, in all senses of the phrase. I needed the civil court, but I guessed they’d know the right legal incantations for me to get at the records I wanted to check, and I was right.
Sure enough, Roy Albrott had been declared mentally incompetent five months ago. It looked like all the t’s had been crossed and the i’s dotted; the “family lawyers” I was supposed to be gathering evidence for knew their stuff. But I recognized the name of the doctor who’d done the evaluation, and he was no psychologist. There’s a certain kind of doctor people in my profession called when they needed to fix specific problems, especially for my former, less savory clientele. Wounds and illnesses you didn’t want reported. Prescription drugs you might not have a strictly medical need for. And sworn medical statements for legal documents.
He’d set up office in a light industrial district rather than the medical district near the hospital; the waiting room had all the charm of a muffler shop. Three pawn shop salvage couches surrounded a sagging coffee table bearing one National Geographic and three Highlights for Children, all from about seven years ago.
The receptionist looked up when I entered. “Do you have an appointment?” The mink made a show of scanning her datebook.
“Sure don’t. Could you let Doc Silverman know that Fixer wants to talk to him? I only need a few minutes.”
“If you don’t have—”
“I only need a few minutes.” I smiled, folding my arms in an I’m going to stare at you until you go get him pose. She returned the stare dolefully for a good five seconds before giving up, rolling her chair back and getting to her paws with a melodramatic sigh.
About ten seconds after she vanished, Silverman came out. The rabbit seemed less surprised to see me than wary. “Well. Miss Fixer.” He chewed on his lower lip, then motioned me back toward his office.
“It’s been at least four years, hasn’t it?” He closed the door behind him. “I thought you’d stopped moving in the circles we used to be in.”
“I have.” I took a seat, leaning back. “Have you?”
“Oh, mostly. Although I’ve found once you’re favored by certain kinds, the requests from them never stop.” He narrowed his eyes at me.
“Don’t I know it. Tell me about Roy Albrott.”
His brows lifted. “What about him?”
“You think he’s incompetent?”
His nose twitched, and he looked away. “I signed the papers.”
“Not what I asked.”
He stroked his chin, not turning back toward me. At length he sighed. “Based on what his daughter told me, the case is perfectly sound.”
I drummed my fingers on my knee. “You didn’t examine him yourself, did you?”
“Based on what his daughter told me,” he repeated, “the case is perfectly. Sound.”
“Got it.” I grunted, standing up again.
He looked at me sidelong. “What’s your interest in this?”
“Doc, your single saving grace has always been your disinterest in asking your patients questions.” I patted his shoulder. “If you don’t screw that up, I won’t, either.”
He swallowed, nodding almost imperceptibly.
It was the next afternoon when I headed back out to Albrott’s land. I drove past the dying grove and down a second gravel road, lined with pineapple palms, toward the Albrott “estate.” I couldn’t help but put the word in air quotes when I thought it; I’d been to mansions before, and this wasn’t one. It was nice, sure, but down-to-earth, a long, low ranch home, maybe two thousand square feet tops. It didn’t even have a full garage, just a disconnected two-space carport. The high-end homes in the future Orange Blossom Estates would be far more ostentatious, and far more cookie-cutter. I liked the house’s look: classic 1940s Florida style, with an open design to take advantage of natural breeze. It’d likely stay tolerable, if not cool, even without air conditioning, although I could see a couple window units.
A vintage olive green Ford pickup truck took up one of the carport spaces; the other one held Laura’s sporty coupe. My tail drooped. Well, that could make this complicated. I couldn’t very well afford to wait her out and try to talk to Roy on my own. Maybe this’d be easier payment-wise, though, since I doubted I’d be getting any more money from her after what I had to say.
I parked my Buick in the circular driveway, opened the door, and staggered straightaway from the odor. The house backed right up to the part of the grove that had become an acidic, waste-ridden swamp. The muck had even seeped around the house’s sides. Covering my nose, I walked up to the front door, ringing the bell.
As I expected, Laura answered. Her eyes widened when she saw me, and she stepped outside, closing the door behind her. “Miss Fixer.”
“Hi, Miss Albrott. Can I come in?”
Her ears lowered. “Can we talk outside? I’d rather not disturb father.”
“Well, for one, your advance only covered one day, not the four I’ve been working, so I’d like to get payment for the other three. Two, it’s hot out here, and it really stinks, and it looks like your lovely home has lovely air conditioning. And three, I need to ask your father a question or two before I finish up.”
“Finish up?” Her ears lifted. “You’ve found something?”
I nodded. “I have.”
It still took her a couple seconds of deliberation before she nodded back, opening the door again. “Let me get my handbag. I’ll pay you in the foyer, and see if my father’s in any shape for receiving visitors today.”
The foyer—and what I could see of the house behind it—carried through the Old Florida feel: hardwood floors, plain but high-quality wooden furniture, a vibe that was less coastal beach town than range-riding cowboy. Some Albrotts had undoubtedly been cattlemen; beef had always been one of the state’s biggest businesses.
The vixen returned with a fistful of cash and a dour expression, which didn’t lessen when I accepted the money and put it in my own pocket. “My father is…he’s not in the best mental state right now. Could we just talk alone in the sitting room about what you’ve been able to find?”
“It’d be best if I could talk with him. I understand I might have to work to get an answer or two, but it’d tie up a few loose ends.”
Laura looked like someone had just shoved a lemon into her muzzle, and she focused a dissecting gaze on me for a few seconds. I hoped I’d judged her correctly as the kind of woman who didn’t carry a gun. “Fine,” she finally said. “Let’s head to the sunroom.”
We walked through the nicely-appointed sitting room, then stepped down onto a tile floor into the huge sunroom—what I’d usually heard called a “Florida room.” Multiple sets of floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors formed each of the four walls. I guessed the two to either side opened onto bedroom wings, currently hidden by curtains on the other side of the glass. The outside set of doors had sliding screen counterparts, but they remained closed today. As hot as it was, the smell would be worse: the toxic sludge was at the glass’s edge. The air conditioning barely reached here, though, and the lazily-spinning ceiling fan didn’t help much.
Cushioned rattan couches, upholstered in floral prints, made up most of the room’s seating. One piece, though, was a huge, round papasan chair. In that chair sprawled a fat, elderly rabbit. Stretch shorts didn’t stretch enough not to look too small for him. A stained, sun-faded red T-shirt rode up on his stomach, exposing greying, patchy fur. He had a tumbler glass by him full of ice and, guessing from the smell, blended Scotch of the quality you find in plastic bottles.
Laura leaned down over him. “Roy? There’s someone here to see you.”
He didn’t look at her, or at me as I sat down. His cloudy blue eyes remained unfocused.
“Roy?” She touched his shoulder.
The rabbit grunted, pushing her hand away, then picked up his Scotch.
“Roy.” She sounded reproachful. “Can you answer just a few questions? Miss…ah…Miss Fixer wants to talk about Barton Estates.”
“Poop,” Roy said clearly, and took a big guzzle.
Her ears colored, and she looked between her father and me.
“Poop all over!” he continued, waving his free hand in the air. “Fuckwads.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “Miss Fixer is trying to find proof of what they did, so we can sue the, ah, fuckwads for what they’ve done to your land.”
His gaze flicked to me for just a moment before he fell back to looking vacant. “Poop.” He shook his head. “Poop poop poop.” He cradled the Scotch in both hands like a teddy bear, dribbling it onto his shirt.
Laura sighed. “I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere today. I’m sorry. We can go back to the sitting room, like I’d first suggested, and talk there.”
“Could I speak to him alone for a couple minutes?”
She straightened up, ears lowering. “You can see he’s not having a good day.”
Laura’s expression grew frostier. “Miss Fixer, I said—”
I steepled my hands, leaning forward and meeting Roy’s eyes. “Three Bridges Septic Tank Service.”
He set his jaw.
“What?” Laura stared at me, then at him, then back at me. “Are those the people Barton hired to destroy our grove?”
“How do you wanna do this, Roy?” I straightened up and crossed my arms.
He slowly set down his Scotch, then leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. “Shit,” he said. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean his grove this time.
I turned to Laura. “They weren’t hired. They did it as a favor to a long-time friend.” I looked back to Roy and tilted my head. “And I have to imagine that friend can still be awfully persuasive, given how insane it must have sounded. Dumping half-treated sewage on his own grove?”
Roy didn’t say anything. But he grinned. Then started laughing.
Laura, though, gasped. “You…you think Roy…? No. No. Roy, tell her no.” She swallowed, voice rising. “Dad, tell her no.”
He turned toward her, gaze as sharp as it must have been when he made cutthroat distribution deals fifty years ago. “Shut up, you goddamn bitch.”
Her eyes widened to twice normal size.
“Oh, drop it.” He stabbed his finger in the air. “I could have sold the damn grove for nearly a million dollars, if you hadn’t conspired with my own damn lawyers.”
“It’s easily worth twice that! Or would have been until you dumped shit all over it! Why would you do that?” She waved her hands. “I knew you were going crazy, but I had no idea!”
“You killed them,” Roy growled. “Sidney and Roy Junior. I don’t know how you did it. But you killed them.”
“For God’s sake, it was a car accident!” Laura threw her hands up in the air, and bared her teeth at her father. “I am so tired of you hating me! This nonsense is why you were declared incompetent, you know that?”
“That, and you getting a doctor who didn’t bother to examine Roy before the declaration.” I sighed. “He wanted the first offer, didn’t he? You turned it down. Because you want all of a bigger share.”
“And I can’t cut the bitch out of my will because she’s my legal guardian. You thought you’d thought of everything, didn’t you?” Roy grinned, in about as diabolical a way as a bunny could. “But I don’t care if I don’t get a goddamn dime as long as you don’t get a goddamn dime. Nobody screws an Albrott, you pointy-eared bitch. And you’re no Albrott.”
Laura balled her hands into fists. “You crazy fucking bastard!”
“Never trust foxes. Even your own adopted daughter.” Roy spat on the floor.
Laura shrieked in rage, running out of the room.
Roy looked back at me with a sneer. “Doesn’t matter if you tell anyone. The land’s still all but worthless now.”
I shrugged. “That’s not my business. I was hired to see if I could get proof that Barton poisoned your land, and it turns out they didn’t.” I rose to my feet.
He snorted, picking up his Scotch again.
“You have any proof Laura killed your son and your wife?”
“Not a damn thing.”
I nodded after a moment, and turned away.
I’d almost gotten out of the Florida room when Laura reappeared, brandishing a snub-nosed pistol. So much for my good judgement. She wasn’t targeting me, though. She marched right past me toward the papasan chair.
I spun around. “Laura, no.”
She stopped, pivoting on a heel to point the gun at me. Her hands shook, but the gleam in her eyes had gotten as crazy as she’d accused Roy of being.
I raised my hands. “Look, either you get a few bucks for your sewage farm out there, or you get a moment of angry satisfaction at the cost of committing a capital crime you will not get away with.”
She shook her head fractionally. “There’s only one witness.”
“So two capital crimes you won’t get away with?” I lowered my hands enough to spread them in appeal. “Come on. You know damn well you’ll be suspect number one.”
Laura lowered her eyes slowly, followed by the gun. She took a deep breath. I figured I might be able to talk her out of doing anything suicidally stupid, but before I got a word out, Roy started laughing. Raucously.
And that was it. With a snarl, Laura lifted her father out of the chair, hauling him toward the sliding glass doors to the outside, unlatching them, shoving them open. The heat—and stench—crashed in like a wave. I winced, staggering back involuntarily.
“Only if they find the body,” she hissed. She dragged Roy outside, straight into the muck. And kept going.
He bellowed, starting to kick. As old as he might be, he could still kick like, well, a rabbit. She staggered, losing her balance, then pulled him down with her, claws and teeth out.
“Good Lord, you two!” I made my way to—but not past—the glass door. “Have you lost your minds?”
The question, though, had become rhetorical. Laura had gone well past listening—and as she rolled over, holding Roy under the sludge, he wasn’t in any position to listen. He thrashed furiously, spraying a plume of toxic waste up over her. She coughed and spat and snarled. In a very short time, though, the splashing settled down.
The vixen straightened, muck up to her waist, and howled, looking positively feral. She tried to wipe the muck off her face, with limited success, and took a single step forward. I don’t know if she’d just spent all her strength, or she tripped, or Roy managed to get a hand around her ankle, but her eyes grew wide and she toppled fully over. As she started to sink, she flailed frantically—just about the last thing she should have done. Which made it just about the last thing she did.
“Good Lord,” I repeated, this time just a whisper.
With the disappearance of both land owners, the former Albrott Groves was simply condemned. Instead of paying the thousand per acre Laura would have wanted, they got it for about a buck an acre. That didn’t count the remediation work, though; that put the whole development close to a year behind schedule. Granted, becoming a crime scene for a while didn’t improve the timeline.
When they were discovered, the bodies were such a mess nobody could prove there’d been foul play. The working theory was that poor mentally unstable Roy had taken a stroll into the toxic waste dump, his noble daughter had gone in to save him, and they’d both drowned horribly. At least that last part was true.
To satisfy my own curiosity, I briefly looked into the car accident that had claimed Roy’s wife and son. Single-car accident; they’d smashed into the underside of an overpass. The ruling was his son had taken a curve too fast and lost control. If Laura had had anything to do with it, she hadn’t left a shred of evidence.
I visited the model home office for Orange Blossom Estates a few days ago, not too long after it opened to the public. All two-story stucco homes, all a shade too large for the undersized lots they’re on, all with central air, all with identical kidney-shaped swimming pools in screen rooms. No Florida rooms, or anything else Floridian at all—the bland styling could blend in anywhere in the country. I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?
The sewage stench is long gone. Of course, so is anything resembling an orange blossom.
© 2019 Watts Martin · License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0