I slipped into the party and admired the view of Biscayne Bay and nodded to my boss to make sure he knew I'd shown up. I had not wanted to attend and my impression was of an evening as dull as all the others. My company kept renting nice rooms in nice hotels, and the same nice people kept attending.
I got a beer and made small talk with some of our current and prospective clients. I also tried to avoid looking at my watch, although it was difficult to stop thinking about the Yankee game that started at seven-thirty.
My back was to the door when I heard a sharp whoosh behind me, as if the outer edge of a hurricane had just blown in from the Atlantic. I felt a surge of tension and excitement, the buzz of kinetic energy. My boss hurried past, almost knocking the beer out of my hand, and I heard him say, "He's here, he's here," in the tones of a six-year-old whose father has just returned from a business trip.
I turned to look. So did everyone else.
I saw a man surrounded by acolytes and sycophants. He was about six feet tall, with graying hair and a thick, dark mustache. He had handsome features and I pegged him at around sixty but there was more to him than looks; he had an aura that inspired fear and deference.
I suspected that I was supposed to know who he was.
He shook hands and smiled a lot while joking in Spanish with people who made a lot more than I did.
When I returned to the bar for my second beer I told myself I was reaching the limit. My plan was to drink slowly and circulate awhile before returning to a house that still had more boxes than furniture.
As I pulled away from the bar I nearly bumped into the distinguished-looking man whose name I should have known. I mumbled an apology in my imperfect Spanish.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
I was surprised to see him there. I figured that if he wanted a drink, somebody would get it for him. Perhaps he just wanted to get away from the crowd.
I tried to step away. He asked if I was in a hurry. I looked at my watch and decided to tell him the truth. He looked like a man who heard it rarely.
"Actually, I'm hoping to catch the Yankee game on ESPN," I said. And then I grinned.
"El Duque is pitching tonight."
"I know," I said. "I love to watch him."
It turned out the man was a huge Yankee fan and by the time I finished my beer the short twilight had turned dark and we were leaning against the bar, talking about the current team and favorite players from the past and memories of the best games we'd ever seen.
At the end, as I was about to leave, after I'd had one beer too many, I gave him my card.
* * *
My boss called me into his office as soon as I got to work.
"You were busy as a beaver last night," he said.
I shook my head in an "aw shucks" manner and asked what he meant.
"Ernesto Rodriguez. We all saw you buttering him up. Like he was freaking popcorn."
I resisted the urge to tell him he meant "friggin'."
"He called us today. Said he wanted to do business with us. Asked for you specifically. Said you were the cream of the crop. That's what he said: 'the cream of the crop.'"
"We've been trying to do business with him for a long time. A long, long time. So call him up. He's expecting you."
My first inclination was to do some research and find out who this man was and what he did and why everybody seemed so interested in working with him. But my boss was the type who'd check ten minutes later to see if I'd made the call. So I phoned Ernesto Rodriguez's office and hoped I would get away with leaving a message.
I gave my name and the company I worked for. I had booted my computer and accessed the Web and was ready to launch a global search for Ernesto Rodriguez as soon as I was told he wasn't in.
"Wasn't El Duque magnificent last night?" asked a voice that was becoming familiar.
I had to agree.
Ernesto Rodriguez worked out of a storefront in the middle of a nondescript commercial stretch in Hialeah. No sign on the door or in the windows said what the name of the company was, and an enormous overhang blocked almost every trace of sunlight from reaching the building.
The door was locked, so I rang the bell. After a few seconds, somebody inside buzzed me through.
I had only a moment to look around the large square room, which was filled with women who were tethered to their desks and speaking urgent Spanglish into their headsets. A door opened on the other side of the room and Ernesto Rodriguez came toward me with his arms outstretched, as if we were best friends who had been separated for years. He put both his hands on my shoulders. Not knowing what else to do, I returned the gesture. For a second I thought we were about to engage in sumo wrestling. "Mr. Doherty," he said, pronouncing my surname in the anglicized way I abhorred. I decided to let it pass and then he asked if I wanted coffee and I said I did. As he guided me across the room he issued a soft-spoken order for cafés con leche, and the woman outside his door began rushing about.
Like the offices of many Cuban exiles, Ernesto's was furnished in a utilitarian manner, as if he didn't want to spend too much on his surroundings because he thought they were temporary. The only personal touch was a wall calendar that showed scenes of Havana, pre-1959. I was surprised by the lack of photographs of wife and children and grandkids.
We talked a little about El Duque and Derek Jeter and how dominant a reliever Mariano Rivera had become. The coffee arrived, and it was excellent. I suspected the beans were freshly ground.
"Señor Rodriguez," I said at last.
"Ernesto. Por favor."
"What's on your mind?"
He leaned close to me and lowered his voice, as if he were afraid his own office was bugged.
"My project," he said.
"It's big," he said. "Huge. The biggest thing I've ever done."
I nodded again. I still had no idea what he did for a living.
"I want you to help me," he said. "To handle the publicity."
"That sounds good."
"It's agreed, then."
"There's just one thing."
"And what is that?"
"Publicity for what?"
Ernesto Rodriguez looked startled, as if I were joking about the only matter in the world he regarded as sacred.
"They did not tell you?" he asked.
I shook my head and grinned. "Nobody ever tells me anything."
He reached into his desk and took out a huge key chain.
"Come with me."
I followed him to the rear of the building, which led into an alley that separated his office from a Laundromat. He pointed out a fleet of vans he had leased for his company -- the firm was growing; he had to be able to send his people out -- before guiding me by the elbow to a new Cadillac.
As we headed west, Ernesto asked if I had any children and I said no and he told me I should get started; a man is not complete until he's a father. He asked why I had moved to Miami and I said I'd been transferred from New York. My wife and I had lived in South Florida for more than a year and were beginning to like it.
"Yes," he said. "It's like that. This place can be seductive."
We reached the turnpike and went south on wide smooth concrete, so unlike the potholed streets of home. I told him how I started rooting for the Yankees while I was a kid in the seventies, in love with the brawling teams of Munson and Reggie and Billy Martin, and Ernesto nodded and said those players had a certain panache and seemed to enjoy themselves. Today's young men take things far too seriously.
When we got off the turnpike, Ernesto turned west again and drove through piney scrubland. We passed trailer parks and shacklike mom-and-pop stores and even a couple of barns that seemed to be in danger of falling over.
Finally I asked, in what I hoped was a pleasant tone, "Where are we going, Ernesto?"
It was his turn to grin. "We're almost there, my friend."
We stopped in the middle of a vast flat field. In the distance I saw dark vegetation that I assumed was the Everglades. Helen and I kept talking about going there, but so far we hadn't gotten around to it.
Ernesto wrapped his right arm around me and began making broad gestures with his left. I imagined Ponce de León doing the same thing to his first mate that fateful Easter morning.
"The whole expanse," he said. "Imagine it. Can you imagine?"
"I'm trying to."
"Three-thousand-square-foot homes. At the least. Some as large as six. We'll have several models for customers to choose from. The architects are drawing up the plans."
The field was muddy. I tried to avoid looking at my shoes.
Ernesto described a gated community that would contain more than five thousand houses, a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus and a six-hundred-acre park with a duck pond and the largest playground in Miami-Dade. The streets would curve gently and be flanked with palms and jacaranda.
"Magnificence," he said. "Every home has a built-in swimming pool. Every one. No amenity will be spared. Sub-Zero refrigerators in every kitchen. Every one. Plus built-in microwaves over the stove. I will spare nothing."
"There will be video cameras on every block. Every one. For security."
Over the next few days Ernesto and I had several conversations in which he told me that his main concern was dealing with The Herald. Like many prominent Cuban exiles, my client had a problematic relationship with Miami's leading newspaper, which he regarded as a leftist, pro-Castro rag. But he needed good publicity for his project, which he had named Tierra Grande.
"That is where you come in, my friend," he said. "You are someone new to the scene. Fresh. With a different perspective. I hope you can talk to them."
I told him I had a good relationship with a number of editors at The Herald.
"I know," he said. "I've asked about you. The reports are excellent."
I had done asking of my own. Ernesto Rodriguez had arrived in Miami as a teenager in 1960 and immediately volunteered for the force that blundered ashore at the Bay of Pigs. After he was released to the United States, he went into business for himself. Military ventures aside, Ernesto Rodriguez was not the type of man who liked to work for other people. He made his first fortune battling tropical insects in the years before anyone took the environment seriously. But in the seventies and early eighties, his business was ruined by inflation and recession and eco-freaks. Ernesto Rodriguez declared bankruptcy and faded from sight. In a "Where Are They Now?" article in 1984, The Herald had reported that Ernesto Rodriguez was working as a janitor in a run-down hotel in Miami Beach and living in a three-bedroom house in Little Havana with his wife, Luisa, their four children, and both sets of grandparents.
But there are second acts in American business, although never in exactly the same line of work. Ernesto bought that hotel, the Orlando, for a price he never divulged publicly. He kicked out the tenants and renovated the place and sold it when the area began to take off. Since then, he had become one of South Florida's leading real-estate developers.
There were rumors about drug money.
As I entered the pastel-laced restaurant with my wife, Ernesto Rodriguez jumped up to embrace me. I tried to return his gesture with suitable enthusiasm before introducing him to Helen. Ernesto kissed her hand and murmured that it was a pleasure to meet her. You can tell a lot about a man by the woman he chooses and I had obviously chosen well. Helen smiled.
"This is good," Ernesto said as we took our seats. "It's good to see you outside of work. The pressures."
I agreed that it was good, and that we were both under pressure. The waiter handed Ernesto a wine list, from which he immediately ordered a Chilean merlot that proved excellent. When I asked where Luisa was, my client dismissed the question, and her, with the kind of wave one uses to shoo away a fly.
"Obligations," he said. "Children. She is what you would call a homebody. But business requires you to be social." He raised his glass.
As Ernesto and I talked about baseball, I caught Helen studying the wallpaper intently, as if she thought this pattern would be perfect for our still-unfinished living room.
"I am sorry," Ernesto said to her. "We're boring you."
Helen said she was the one who should apologize. Her mind was wandering.
"What would you like us to talk about?" Ernesto asked.
"Garry's told me about your project," she said. "It sounds interesting. Ambitious."
She smiled at him and I could tell Ernesto liked her. Almost every man I ever met liked Helen. She seemed open and sincere and totally without guile, and her short hair was highlighted in a way that made it seem as if she'd just walked out of the sun. She also had a husky voice that more than a few men told me they found sexy.
Ernesto talked about Tierra Grande, but most of it was stuff I already knew. Now it was my turn to zone out, and I wondered if Helen could really be serious about the wallpaper, which I found overbearing.
"Now your husband is getting bored," Ernesto said. He threw out his hands. "I don't know what to do. I can't keep both of you interested at the same time."
I grinned. "I am interested, Ernesto. I think Tierra Grande will be where everyone wants to live. Everyone who can afford it."
We all laughed. Politely, as I recall.
And then Helen raised a question I'd been wondering about, but had considered improper to pose. Coming from me, it would have sounded as if I were suspicious or had a hidden agenda. Coming from Helen, it sounded like genuine curiosity.
What my wife asked was this: "Where are you getting the money?"
Ernesto raised his wine to his lips. I noticed a cloud over his eyes, but then they brightened, as if he had just thought of the perfect answer.
"The money comes from many sources. I have access to lots of capital. As do you, I understand."
Helen smiled again and blushed a little. "It all depends," she said. "I deal with emerging markets. At least we hope they'll emerge someday."
Halfway through the bar, on our way to the parking lot, we all stopped when we heard a voice call out Ernesto's name. The voice was hard and flat and twanged, and it reminded me of cactus and tumbleweed.
Ernesto froze. I glanced at him and saw the side of his face for only a second but he looked like a man who had just unearthed something that he thought was buried forever.
He turned around and straightened and assumed a dignified mask.
We were approached by a man in his mid-forties. He was more than six feet tall, with salty hair that had once been blond. The crinkles around his eyes gave away a life spent outdoors.
"Ernesto Rodriguez. I thought it was you."
He put out his hand, which Ernesto accepted without enthusiasm.
Ernesto asked the man why he was in Miami.
"Bidness," he said. "The same as always. Bidness and opportunity."
Suddenly I stopped seeing him. Because a woman had come up beside. She was almost a foot shorter than he was and should have been overwhelmed but she had dark skin and darker eyes and long straight hair parted in the middle and she wore diamond earrings and a necklace with a crucifix and a simple black dress that showed a hint of cleavage.
I heard Ernesto murmur in Spanish how good it was to see her again and heard him say the name: Magdalena.
Soon there were introductions all around. I was pleased that Ernesto now pronounced my surname the way I preferred -- Dock-er-ty, a set of syllables that rise from the mists of Gaelic. The man with the tumbleweed voice was Frank Hedges. He and Ernesto had been in bidness together a long time ago. The woman was Hedges' wife.
"I'm glad I found you, Ernesto," Hedges said. "There are some things I want to discuss. Bidness opportunities."
"Now is not the time or the place," Ernesto said.
"Then I'll call you tomorrow. Bright and early."
Copyright © 2001 by Tom Coffey