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from The Putt at the End of the World,

Chapter 1, "Deep Rough"

Redfish Key, Florida

"You see that one, Hector?" Alfonzo Zamora called, the squat, stocky form familiar to a generation of golfing fans outlined against the setting sun. He had his eyes screwed tight, squinting down the narrow tunnel of mangroves and palms guarding the brutal eighteenth hole of the Links at Redfish Key.

On toward 7 p.m. of a languid Florida summer evening, the light failing, the shadows murderous, anyone could be forgiven for losing sight of something as tiny as a golf ball, Zamora told himself. His belly was no more formidable than it had been when he’d waded across the Rio Grande from Santa Teresa to El Paso almost forty years before, and his drives were very nearly the equal of those he could hit back then, but, admittedly, his eyes were not the same.

"I saw where it came down," his longtime caddy said.

"Good," Zamora said, turning to hand over his driver.

"I dunno about that," big Hector said as he accepted the club.

"What are you talking about?" Zamora was already off the tee, moving toward their cart, anxious to get things over with. His opponent–one Harvey Byers, a bond trader from Palm Beach who had put up twenty thousand dollars for the privilege of playing eighteen holes with the legendary Marvelous Mex this day–was venturing out onto the members tee box a hundred yards or so ahead, waggling his club, readying himself for his own final tee shot.

Hector shrugged. He stowed the driver into the cavernous tooled leather bag that had once been given to Zamora by the president of the state of Chihuahua, then slipped on one of the head covers done up to resemble a tiny sombrero. "That water really sucks up," the caddy said. "That’s what I’m talking about."

Zamora swiveled around, stared back down the fairway. The blue of the sky had paled; a bank of distant thunderheads had taken on a pinkish cast. A late breeze off the water stirred the overhanging palms. "No way," he protested. "I hit that ball good."

"You did hit it good," Hector said. He glanced at the little dog-eared yardage book he carried in the pocket of his T-shirt. "I’d say two-eighty, two-ninety, right into that lake on the left side of the fairway."

"What lake?" Zamora demanded.

"That one right down there," Hector said, pointing. They had always been something of a Mutt and Jeff act, but the big man was truly losing patience with him, Zamora thought. One of the inevitable drawbacks to a long-term relationship. He’d been with Hector for almost thirty years, had run through four marriages in the same length of time.

Zamora stared. A long line of trees bordered the fairway, which seemed to widen out into a blue-green plain, just about where Hector’s dusky finger was aimed. "That looks like grass to me," he said.

"Well now, that’s the problem, isn’t it?"

"Shit," Zamora said.

The solid crack of Byers’s tee shot drifted back toward them.

"Watch for a splash," Zamora said, hopefully. "You seem to be good at it."

"Ain’t splashin’," Hector said, peering off into the gloom. "That white man just split himself the middle."

Zamora sighed. "Come on, Hector, get in the cart."

Hector gave him a look. The caddy stood well over six feet, weighed somewhere between two-seventy-five and anybody’s guess. He shouldered the heavy bag as if it were nothing but a day player’s canvas tote and started off down the fairway. "I been carrying this bag for thirty years, I ain’t about to turn it over to some machine at this stage of the game."

Zamora sighed again, then pressed the accelerator, heading toward what he’d just learned was a lake.

"Well, at least we didn’t lose any money," Zamora was saying. He’d had to hurry to his cart and floor it to catch up with Hector as the caddy stalked off the eighteenth green. One into the lake, drop with a penalty, he’d been hitting three into the green. But he’d been a little long with that approach shot, had to settle for a two-putt, had finished with a five. The bond trader, meanwhile,
had somehow managed a bogey as well, his lowest score of the afternoon, and, with the stroke Zamora had given him, had won the hole outright.

"Mmmm-hmmm," Hector said. His lips were tight, his gaze fixed on that bank of thunderheads in the distance. Big roiling bank of thunderheads–pink on top, dark blue on the bottom, some kind of silent lightning flashing around in between–it looked like a giant brain about to explode, Zamora thought.

"I mean, who wouldn’t have taken that press? You got to make life interesting, Hector, or what the hell’s the point?" Zamora persisted. "Double or nothing, guy hasn’t hit one out of his shadow all day . . ."

Hector gave him a sidelong glance. "Was a time," he said, "when you were known for the same damn thing: take on a man with a full set of clubs and you with nothing but a taped-up Coke bottle–"

"Pepsi," Zamora corrected him.

Hector shrugged. "Same thing."

Zamora glanced back toward the green where Harvey Byers was peeling bills off a roll, handing them over to his own caddy. "You think he set me up?"

Hector made a snorting sound that might have been intended as a laugh. "You better start wearing those glasses like the doctor said, Z-man. That’s all I got to say. You seem to be missing quite a bit these days."

At that, Zamora turned his broad, bronzed Aztec features away, wondering what Hector would say if he told him he had been wearing glasses, contacts anyway. He’d slipped away to find a Specs-Is-Us outlet during that rain-out day at the Atlanta Senior Classic, had himself fitted for a pair of the soft lenses. And they’d worked fine, for a month or so. But now . . . He shook his head. The truth was, he didn’t know what was happening with his eyes. Soon as he got back home, he’d go see the doctor again–

"Look out!" Hector cried, and Zamora came back with a start. He slammed on the brake of the cart, locking it into a power slide that stopped a few inches short of a decorative pond occupying the grounds between the clubhouse path and the parking lot. Vague orange shapes slithered around in the shallow water there–those giant Japanese goldfish, Zamora thought; either that or orange alligators. He reached down to the transmission lever, flipped the cart into reverse.

"Throw those clubs on the cart and get in," he said to Hector. "We got a plane to catch." Zamora had his foot poised atop the accelerator, was doing his best to ignore the shrill warning ping that the cart was sending out. He didn’t have to read his watch to know they’d be cutting it close. Maybe forty-five minutes to make the last plane out; he was due in Orlando for an 8 a.m. tee time,
a corporate outing with some executives from Disney the day before some new Senior event–the Mickey and Minnie Open.

Only ten grand for the outing, but he had alimony payments rolling around, and he’d just blown this appearance money. The way he’d been playing on the tour this season, it might be the only cash he could count on taking home from the Florida swing.

"I been meaning to talk to you about Orlando," Hector was saying. He had his head hanging down, the big bag off his shoulder now, resting it on the ground in front of him. He was moving from one foot to the other as if he might be practicing how to dance.

"Talk about what?" Zamora said. "We’ll have plenty of time on the plane, man. Come on."

Hector glanced up finally. "Fact is, I won’t be going to Orlando."

Zamora stared at him dumbly. He reached down, twisted the key of the cart. Though the pinging stopped, the throbbing at his temples did not. "You’re not going to Orlando? Why the hell not?"

Hector rolled his big head around uncomfortably, glanced back in the direction of the eighteenth green.

"Z-man, you don’t have to make this any harder than it is."

"You sound like my last wife, Hector. Now tell me what’s wrong."

"Well, you know we ain’t been doing so well lately–"

"Don’t tell me Hale Irwin’s been after you again. Promising you things? I told you that guy is just trying to mess with me. He don’t care about you, Hector, not like I do. Besides, he’s picked up a hitch in his swing, and his putting stroke is shot. He lost back-to-back playoffs against a couple of nobodies."

Hector held up his big paw. "It’s not Hale Irwin," he said sorrowfully. "I just told you I ain’t going to Orlando."

"Well, what then?"

Hector shrugged, glanced back along the path toward the green. Harvey Byers, the bond trader, was striding their way, his smile glinting even in the fading light. "I got kids in high school, Z-man," Hector said. "About to go off to college. I got to be thinking of the future."

"Mr. Zamora," the bond trader was calling. "I wanted to catch you before you got away–"

"We’re having a conversation," Zamora snapped.

"I better just leave these here," Hector said. He stepped forward, propped the big bag against the seat of the cart.

"Why don’t you just go on inside, tell them you’re with me," the bond trader said to Hector.

Zamora stared at Byers, then back at Hector. His mouth fell open as it began to dawn on him. "Hector!" he called. "Are you shitting me?"

But Hector didn’t turn. He was moving down the path toward the clubhouse as quickly as Zamora had ever seen him move. Zamora swung back to Byers, who held his hands up in a placating manner.

"Now I know you must be upset . . . ," Byers began.

"Did you just hire my caddy away?" Zamora said. He vaulted over the clubs Hector had dumped in his path, and in one smooth motion had a handful of Byers’s shirtfront before the man could step away.

"Hustle me out of twenty thousand dollars, steal my caddy . . ." Zamora dragged Byers toward the pond, had one hand on his collar, another at the seat of his pants. Yes, let them be orange alligators, he thought.

"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!" Byers cried, as Zamora neared the top of his backswing.

Zamora hesitated, glanced down at the man he held in his hands. "You offered Hector that kind of money? He’s a good caddy, but he’s not that good."

"I’m offering you two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," Byers said. His voice sounded a little strange. "That’s what I wanted to talk to you about."

Zamora realized he was strangling the man with his polo shirt. He released his hold on the back of Byers’s collar. The man managed to catch himself on his palms, keep his face from smacking the curb at the edge of the pond.

"Are you going to let go of my pants now?" Byers asked. He looked like he was frozen halfway through a push-up.

"Maybe," Zamora said. One good sling and he could still run the man right into the water. "It depends on just how good this story is."

"It’s not a story at all," Byers said. "It’s true. It’s why we brought you down here to begin with.
We wanted to be sure your skills were still intact, you see, and they were outstanding, I must say, except for that final hole–"

"I am going to feed you to the fish," Zamora said. He noted agitated splashing in the pool now. Perhaps they were golden piranha. This was South Florida, after all.

"Please, Mr. Zamora, hear me out . . ."

"Just who is this we?" Zamora said, tensing himself for the toss.

"I represent Phillip Bates," Byers said.

"The computer guru," Zamora said, irony in his voice. "Richest man in the world."

"Not to mention golf aficionado," Byers added hastily. "Remember when he tried to buy Augusta Country Club?"

Zamora peered down through the gloom. Of course he remembered. For what Bates had offered, even the supposedly inviolate membership of Augusta had finally caved in. It had taken an act of the Georgia legislature to keep the deal from going through. "What would Phillip Bates want
from me?" he asked suspiciously.

Byers twisted his head around. In the gloom, only one eye visible, his mouth working awkwardly, he looked a bit like a fish himself. "He wants you to come to Scotland, Mr. Zamora."

"To Scotland?" Zamora said. He released his hold on Byers finally and the man dropped in a heap. "What the hell for?"

Byers got to his feet then, straightened his thinning blond hair, dusted his hands on his slacks. "For two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," he repeated, his voice back to something like normal. He had withdrawn his wallet, was holding out something that looked like a check. "Half to be paid now, half when the job is done."

"And what sort of job is this?" Zamora asked dubiously.

"Why don’t we go inside and talk about it?" Byers said, handing over the check.

Zamora stared down. It looked like his name all right, and he thought all the zeros were in place. He checked the sky, saw he’d have to find better light to make sure the decimal point was right.

What the hey, he’d already missed his flight. He could go inside, do that much, he thought, and followed Byers away.

Palm Desert, California

Rita Shaughnessy stood beneath the patio overhang at the rear of the bungalow she had occupied for nearly a month at the Samantha Forbes Clinic, a copper-faced wedge poised about three-quarters back in her swing. Though it was a man’s club, it hardly mattered. She’d been the longest-hitting woman on the tour, could outdrive more than a few of her male counterparts. Besides, she was hardly in a position to be picky about her equipment.

"Spend enough time in a place like this," she said over her shoulder, "you can figure out all sorts of things."

Copyright, Les Standiford, 2000

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