The dank smell of dead fish fills the twilit marina in Port Aransas, Texas. Pretty standard, for July. Everything dies, and in July everything rots.
But it’s not just that, this time. Supposedly. A passerby noticed a smell, he’d said, in an anonymous report—from a payphone!—but is that likely or practical? Ramirez, first on the scene, doesn’t buy it. Or smell it.
The dispatcher only gave him the slip number, not the name of the boat. But Ramirez knows the name without looking for it, now that he’s seen the boat for himself. He’s been on it before, and once had a beer with its owner. Another time, he and his partner found a dead body inside. But he has no warrant today. Legally, he has no business here.
On the other hand, he’s pretty sure the owner would want him to check it out. And, after all, he’s covered—there was a stench, right? Something rotting. Something large. Otherwise, why is he here?
He steps onto the boat, grabbing a stanchion in case the boat rolls under him…it doesn’t; it’s large and heavy…and raps on the door. “Police! Anyone here?”
Nothing. He eyes the door’s handle. If it’s locked, what then?
But it isn’t. Gingerly, he tries the knob. It turns.
A quick glance is enough. This one’s even worse than the last. And this time, he’s not going in there. Better to leave it for the detectives. Not a scene he wants to wake up thinking about in the middle of the night. Though it’s probably too late already….
Ramirez shudders, letting his eyes go out of focus. The last time he’d seen this boat it was over in Corpus Christi, though. Maybe the owner has sold it, since then? Maybe it isn’t him in there?
Sure looks like him, though. A big guy, anyway.
Was the guy who’d called it in actually the killer, or was he climbing around on the boat for some other reason? Looking for stuff to steal? He’s gone, either way. Absolutely typical for Port Aransas, in Ramirez’s opinion—an interesting little town with too many colorful characters, and a noticeable shortage of civic virtue. Though, to be fair? The tourists are worse.
Ramirez’s partner finally shows up, his near-perpetual beer-breath almost strong enough to cloak worse things. Ramirez wonders what died in there—in the guy’s mouth—but doesn’t ask.
“Hey, Sancho! What’s the squeal?”
Ramirez rolls his eyes, then contents himself with jumping off the boat, stringing crime-scene tape across the boat’s stanchions, and waving curious dock-walkers to go around. “Not much,” he says as they pass by. Then, with some privacy: “Keogh. Call me Sancho one more time? I’m shoving you in the water.” Though actually it might be worth doing, he mused, just to clean the guy up a little.
“Nice,” Keogh replies. “Seriously, dude. What’s up?”
Ramirez turns to study his partner more carefully. In his full uniform today, which is a plus. Probably going commando under it, which Ramirez wished he didn’t know. Typical half-grin, typical hand motions when he talks, typical devil-may-care lack of concern. Welcome to Port A. Look, it’s Officer Friendly.
“Murder,” Ramirez tells him finally. “It’s another one.”
“Shit,” Keogh says, then breathes onto his left hand and sniffs it. “You figure Tequila will show?”
“Count on it,” Ramirez says, grinning a little in spite of himself. “You gonna call her that in person?”
A quick laugh, a quicker grin. “Not today.”
* * *
The dock has gone mostly quiet. Gulls shriek their stories, paying no attention to each other. A sea turtle swims up to the boat, considers it carefully from all sides, and swims away.
Darkness falls. Hand-carried generators start up out on the South Jetty. Ramirez can’t see them from where he stands and Keogh sits on the dock, but he can hear them. He’d much rather be out there tonight. His uncle had gone out most nights of the year, never holding down a job but managing to catch and sell enough fish to provide some support for his family. Ramirez had followed the guy around when he was a kid, but lost touch during his teenage years. Hadn’t talked to him for nearly a decade.
And then Uncle Roberto’s body had been found stuffed behind a dumpster. Not the first of the bloodless bodies that had been found around town this summer. And not the last either.
“They’re coming,” Keogh says quietly, standing up and squirting something vile into his mouth.
* * *
Detective Phil Gordon grimaces as he pulls into the Port Aransas Marina’s parking lot. A tourist in an SUV, trying to jump in line to get to the ferry to the mainland, had bounced over a curb and nearly sideswiped Gordon’s unmarked Neon. Then the guy, with what looked like twelve long-haired and un-seatbelted passengers rattling inside his brand-new deathtrap on wheels, had flipped Gordon off.
Well, it’s The Island. Even if Gordon had been in a well-labeled cruiser, policy would have been to ignore it.
He gets out of his car and hears a beep from his personal phone.
A text from Sower: Left the doc. On my way. Twenty minutes.
Gordon leans back against the door of his Impala, drumming the fingers of his right hand on its hood. He can see where Ramirez and his fuckup partner are positioned out there. No crime scene techs, of course. Nobody from the coroner’s office either.
Port Aransas didn’t have a lot of resources, the official story went. And most crimes in the area involved drunkenness—which was rarely if ever prosecuted—and petty theft. So when things happened, of course the much larger Corpus Christi police department got pulled in to help. But…quietly. Mustn’t disturb the tourists.
Gordon lights a cigarette and inhales. No rush here. Tequila would just go over the same territory, and speaking of territory she’d get all pissed if he went in first anyway. Never mind who was the senior detective—Margarita Sower didn’t like men in front of her.
Maybe the rumors were true and she didn’t like men at all. Gordon grinned. Could’ve fooled him. But he knows how to keep his mouth shut. Sometimes.
It’s more like forty minutes before she pulls up on her Harley.
“Waited for me?” she asks with a smile.
Gordon smirks at her helmet hair long enough to be sure she sees him do it, then gives a one-shoulder shrug. “Ramirez is down there.”
She rolls her eyes. “Phil, he got a promotion out of that transfer. More money. You know? He has a wife and kid. You could cut him a break.”
“Could,” Gordon agrees. “I figured he had it under control. Might as well wait up here.”
Again with the eye roll. And another shrug.
* * *
Gordon’s lips purse when he sees the houseboat.
“Something?” Sower asks him over her shoulder, not slowing.
“Maybe. Think I know the owner.”
They get down to the boat. Ramirez doesn’t look at either of the detectives, but makes an all-yours arm sweep toward the boat. “I went onboard twice,” he says. “Took a look inside, then called you guys from out here. Went in the second time to chase out a couple of seagulls before they screwed anything up. Closed the door. Hatch. Whatever. Been waiting a while,” he adds in a bland tone, his eyes twitching toward the parking lot where Gordon had waited.
Gordon nods and lights another cigarette. “Tequila?” he asks, deadpan. “Ready to go for a look?”
She steps aboard without acknowledging him. Ramirez’s idiot partner grins openly, then wipes it off his face when Gordon glares. Ramirez stands, stolid and not quite slumping, but obviously not happy.
Gordon blows a smoke ring, then favors Ramirez and his partner with one more glare, flips the cigarette into the water, and follows his partner. Without the damn kiddies around he’d have just kept the butt lit. It cut dead-body stench better than anything else he knew. But…maybe it wouldn’t be the best example to set, especially with a couple of baby cops here whose job it was going to be to interfere with the investigation. If any. Tourism, on The Island, is king.
Gordon climbs aboard.
* * *
Dank, dark. Sower flips a light switch but the bulb is dim and anyway obscured by all the junk lying around. Going through this stuff is going to take days—and Gordon doesn’t even know what half of it is. Computer equipment, of some kind, obviously. Some fishing gear, looking as if it had been used and set down in a corner with no effort toward putting it away. Pizza boxes. And, yeah: junk.
The body’s stench isn’t as bad as Gordon expected, given that someone had supposedly sniffed it out from the dock—Gordon isn’t looking at the body yet; that isn’t his system and anyway Sower is kneeling next to it right now—but the dishes piled in the boat’s little kitchen? Pretty rank.
Gordon walks through the rest of the boat, hands in his pockets, just letting everything he sees soak into his mind. He doesn’t take notes. His way of absorbing all the information he can, not particularly paying attention to any one thing he sees but forming an impression of the man who had lived here. Or refining it, anyway. Gordon hadn’t expected such a mess from him.
“Same thing with the blood,” Sower tells him, still staring at the corpse. “Either he didn’t die here, or…”
Gordon nods. Or somebody had collected the blood. Right here. And left with it.
Sower looks up at him, giving a half-snarl. “Any chance of surveillance video around here?”
Gordon doesn’t bother to answer. It had been a rhetorical question. And she wasn’t snarling at him, anyway. Tell the Port Aransas PD they could solve more crimes with a camera and they’d make an effort to remove any they found. Not exactly a crime-solving sort of town.
“Fits the other vics too, maybe,” Sower says. “Fishermen, homeless, guys living alone. Nobody anyone cares about. Nobody with friends.”
Gordon shuts the door they’d entered, reaches into his pocket, and pulls out yet another cigarette. Bodies were always bad, for him, in spite of his job. Strangers were tough enough to deal with, but…
“Might be a little different this time,” he says.
Sower cocks an elegant eyebrow. “Yeah?”
“This guy ran a computer company,” Gordon tells her. “Or partly. There are people who will notice he’s gone.”
Her expression closes off slightly. “You really knew him, huh? A friend? We could give this one to—”
Gordon cuts her off. “Didn’t know him that well. Didn’t much like him either. But yeah, I know who he is.”
* * *
Viktor Bentley sits in his office, staring at his assistant. “You disturbed me for this, because…?”
Atkins, smiling slightly, shrugs. “It’s not a coincidence. Somebody knows.”
Viktor purses his lips. Somebody knew, indeed. And…“I think it’s time to enlist some assistance,” he says.
Atkins’ smile grows a touch more scornful than Viktor likes. But it isn’t the sort of thing a show of force would help with. Or at least…not yet. Viktor, as a rule, prefers to gather more information before striking.
Viktor turns back to the spreadsheet he’d been studying before his…flunky, he decides…had come into the office, then pretends to notice Atkins is still there. “You have no further tasks?” he inquires, scowling faintly at a column of insufficiently large numbers onscreen. “How fortunate for you.”
Atkins stands a moment longer, enough to establish that he is indeed chafing at Viktor’s reins, and then leaves Viktor’s office.
As the footsteps recede Viktor rests his head in his hands. Getting old, he chides himself, was never actually part of the plan.
Nor is having his throat torn out by puppies he can still cow into submission, though. When he needs to.
He reaches for the phone.
* * *
The Hermit breathes deeply. Slowly. Calmly–or near enough.
He opens the main hatch and stumps into the cabin of his houseboat. Trying not to listen to the splashes and thrashing in the water outside, behind him, just off the bow of his home.
Something about aging is making his hard-won self-control harder to maintain. He’d thought it would work the other way. In fact, until recently he’d been grateful to be included, even peripherally, in the discussions and decisions of a few of his shape-shifting friends. Nice to be valued.
He doesn’t want them to stay away. But he needs more distance. Luckily, the children so far seem willing to believe him to be simply uncomfortable with their nudity just prior to their Change. And he is happy to have them believe that, if it means he can turn his back.
In fact, though: it’s just hunger. When they weren’t right in front of him? He wanted to help. He wanted to advise. But as time passes, he’s having more and more trouble not seeing his visitors as food. Tasty food. Especially when they thrash about….
Later, when silence comes and his mind clears, he goes back out on deck and picks up the swimsuits–one male, one female–and removes the empty soda cans. Not that he particularly cares whether his boat looks well-kept on the outside. But…it might be time to get away for a while. By himself, as he used to do. Move on down the Laguna Madre for a time.
But the children had brought unwelcome news. They–and the boy he’d helped raise, the boy who had grown into a fine young man, the boy whom The Hermit would do anything to protect–are about to get into deeper trouble than they can imagine.
So he can’t leave. Not now. He has to find a way to control his predatory urges.
The Hermit chuffs out a short laugh. People were not supposed to be food. Or, at least…most of them weren’t.
On the other hand: maybe, if he acts decisively, he can resolve this situation himself. And quickly.
He drags over a chair, and sits heavily. Too many secrets, he muses. Too much he simply can’t reveal. To anyone.
Yes. Action is the solution. Personal involvement, however distasteful, is clearly necessary. Inescapably.
The Hermit sits for hours, considering his options. Scowling.
Fun so far? Let me know. It’s an early draft, so things may change, but the gist should remain.
And have fun out there!