Bite me... - Editor
Sunrise at the beach was beautiful, but the dead body wasn’t. “Funny,” said Detective Terry. “Funny how a hot young girl dead looks even worse than an old fart washed up on the shore.”
“Incongruent,” said Detective Blackbeard. “Reminds us of our mortality. A symbol of life, dead.”
“Yeah, you say so. Still, young girl with a body like that, in a bathing suit like that, all I’m saying is it should make you feel something other than just another sad job.”
They had to park all the way up in the parking lot at Margaritaville and walk in; the lieutenant and patrol officers on the scene had roped off a solid block around Pier Park to keep the tourists and the press away. Particularly the press. Dead bodies on the beach weren’t good for tourists. Terry looked at the body, both of them standing back and taking a long last look before they turned the scene over to the techs.
“Forty-seven minutes what?” said Blackbeard.“Until we get the call from the Chamber of Commerce. Looks like a shark. We get a call soon, I say forty-seven minutes or less, explaining that that line of deep punctures that look like they could have, just might have come from a big set of teeth, really came from a new secret weapon the gang-bangers are using. But it wasn’t a shark. Besides, they’ll probably tell us she was just some tramp from out of town, down here to party, not worth worrying about. And it couldn’t have been a shark.” “Go easy,” said Blackbeard. “Work the process, and let the answers come. Lot we don’t know yet. Besides, look at the sand. No marks. The sand has been groomed by the beach service, like they do every night. Either she washed up before they groomed, and they groomed right over her, or she was dumped here after they groomed.”
“Still say shark. Look, right there. You see it? I’m betting that’s a tooth broken off.”
“Maybe. We’ll see when the examiner pulls it out. There’s a kid that works with the groomers sometimes for tips we need to talk to, but he’s homeless and we won’t find him until tomorrow early. Maybe he saw something. Let’s go get some breakfast. Let’s do Sunrise today. They got better eggs.”
“Yeah, but Fatty’s got better gossip. She’ll know more about this already than we do. God, we’re cold. Standing over a dead girl, talking about food.”
“It’s a job,” said Blackbeard. “Don’t get caught up. Don’t get ahead. I’ve been doing this a long time. Work the process. Don’t get ahead. Let the answer come to you.”
“Still makes me mad. They’re going to run her down, sweep this thing under the rug. You know it.”
Terry squinted into the sun dramatically.
“Everybody matters, or nobody matters,” he said.
“You’re not Harry Bosch,” said Blackbeard. “Don’t steal lines from Michael Connelly.”
“I still say I need a catchphrase, something to sum up the scene.”
“Yeah, well, don’t steal it. Bad form for cops to steal.”
Fatty’s was run by Patty, who wasn’t fatty, which was the joke, such as it was. But she did know everything there was to know in Panama City Beach. She came over to their table while Terry and Blackbeard were arguing over whether omelets counted as eggs or not.
“Yo?” she said.
“Yo, yourself,” said Terry.
She gave him a look that said she was about to go to the back and get the big flyswatter and take it to his behind. Never said it; never had to.
“Yolanda. Yo. Yo Murphy. Poor girl washed up on the beach this morning. Heard you two either had her case and were just down at the beach looking for cheap thrills. Being a Christian woman, I gave you the benefit of the doubt and assumed you were working, instead of wasting the money good taxpayers like me give you for doing next to nothing. However, Jesus has not blessed my heart with enough charity to allow me to assume you know what you’re doing. So what do you think you know?”
Terry took out his notebook. “Well, we know her name, now.”
“I’ll bet you know,” she drew the word ‘know’ into at least five syllables, “that a big old shark did it.” She pulled up a chair and broke off a piece of Terry’s muffin. “And I bet you’re wrong. I bet the shark that did it comes into my living room every Thursday night at eight.”
Blackbeard chewed his omelet, or eggs, whatever. He knew Patty would get to the point, knew she was demanding to be asked, didn’t want to give her the satisfaction.
“All right, so why does a shark come into your living room every Thursday at eight?” Course, Terry, did not have Blackbeard’s patience.
“Yours too.” She looked at Terry like he was simple. “TV show. ‘Shark,’ the detective. You know, the one that wears sharkskin suits, hands out shark’s teeth for business cards, all that sort of crap. I hate that every detective on TV has to have a gimmick. They ought to make one like you boys, detectives that do nothing but sit on their butts eating.”
Blackbeard interrupted before this got out of hand. “So they’re shooting that around here? Thought that was set in LA? Not the Lower Alabama LA, the Los Angeles one.”
“Well of course it’s set in LA. No, you know Jeremy Speller, the actor that plays Shark? He’s out in Rosemary Beach on vacation, out in the big Nautilus house between Rosemary Beach and that new Alys Beach. Yo’s been hanging around him, thinking it’s both true love and her ticket out. I bet they did it.”
Terry leaned back and pointed a finger at Patty. “So how come you know more about this than we do?”
Patty opened her mouth and Blackbeard put his hand on her arm to slow her down. Blackbeard grew up around here; his mom had been friends with Patty for years. Growing up, Blackbeard lived with the certainty that his mom would know everything he did five minutes after he did it. Southern men run around and do important things and run the world. Southern women talk among themselves, know everything there is to know, and sit back and shake their heads in amazement as their men run around in circles until they wind up right back where the women knew they were going all along.
“Miss Patty,” he said, “how do you know he did it?”
“Isn’t that the way? Big time tourist comes down here, fills small town girl’s head with big dreams, and dumps her? Only this time, they really did dump her. Isn’t that the way it happens?”
“Been known to happen. You know anything to prove it?”
Patty stood up. “That’s your job. And I think you should go do it.”
The Nautilus house was a few miles down the road in Walton County. They really should have had someone from the Walton County sheriff’s office with them when they went to the Nautilus house, but Blackbeard had a cousin who had a friend in the sheriff’s office, and he said it would be all right. Or, Blackbeard’s cousin said he thought his friend would say it was all right, if he actually asked him.
“I can see why they call it the Nautilus House,” said Terry as they sat outside the gate and tried to figure out their next move. The house looked like a giant seashell left on the beach. Blackbeard knew that the house next door was close to ten thousand square feet. This one dwarfed it.
“The family that owns it, the family that owns that big bank and has that daughter that did the reality show about how she doesn’t need money because she’s rich, they want people to call it by their name. Ain’t going to happen,” said Blackbeard. “You build a house that looks like a football, it’s always going to be the Football House. I bet no one can even tell you what brand of car the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile is.”
“How you want to do this? I sure as hell don’t want to buzz the intercom and wait five minutes for some flunky to tell us that no one’s home and no one ever will be home.”
Blackbeard pointed. “Then let’s go through that gap, there.” They walked through the fence and up the driveway to the front door. Blackbeard rang the doorbell and waited while Terry looked through the blue-tinted glass.
“Looks like a damned museum in there. This main room’s the size of a church. People actually live here?” Blackbeard shrugged. His cell buzzed and he stepped off to the side to take it. Terry heard him grunt a few times before he dropped the phone back in his pocket.
“C of C?” asked Terry.
“Close. Mayor’s office. Reminding us it’s not a shark attack.”
“They got any reason to believe that?”
“What you’d expect,” said Blackbeard.
“You mean like, it can’t be sharks we never have a problem with sharks, we don’t even have sharks, those things they catch off the pier are just really big guppies with really big teeth?”
“You got it.”
They saw a man, a big man, come into view from one side in the house. He was in no hurry, and it took him a long time to get to the door. He opened the door and stood there, big Asian guy with a shaved head, wearing workout pants and a sleeveless shirt, arms crossed and biceps flexing as he eyed them.
“Yeah?” he said.
“We’re Detectives Terry and Blackbeard…”
“You think I don’t know that?” he cut him off. “Think I didn’t know you were cops soon as you broke the law and violated our fence? Look at the two of you:” he nodded at Terry,” big guy, could have been a linebacker maybe, trying to pull off the Miami Vice look with white suit and pastel tee. Cool twenty years ago, man, but not now and not on you.
“But the other one’s the one you gotta watch,” he pointed a finger at Blackbeard. “Old Florida, scrawny. Gristle and sinew. Pale blue expressionless eyes of a reptile. Look like something they drug out of the swamp, put in a cheap suit and handed a gun and a badge. Course I knew you were cops. Now what can I do for you before you leave?”
“We’d like to see Mr. Speller.”
“He’s asleep. And he’s not here. And if he were here, he wouldn’t be here.”
Terry stepped up and put his nose against the man’s nose. Blackbeard pulled him back.
“Let’s try this another way, sir,” he said. “This is more serious than you may realize. Do you recognize this woman?” He showed him the digital picture of the girl, obviously dead. The man looked but did not react.
“Don’t remember,” he said without expression.
“She’s dead, sir. That makes this a homicide investigation, for the moment. That means we expect cooperation from you, and Mr. Speller. We have reports that Mr. Speller knew the young woman. We need to talk to him, sir.”
“She’s a local toy, been out here some. So what?”
Terry stepped up again and Blackbeard let him go. “So she was here, you lied about it, and now she’s dead. We get pissed when that happens. We start to wonder what other words belong in that sentence, like maybe after ‘she was here,’ I should have said, ‘you killed her’ or maybe ‘your boss fed here to a shark’ or something else. We’re cops. We get paid to protect our people from people like you. Now go get your boss, and we’ll be nice enough to talk here, or we’re coming in and get him and we can talk back at our place.”
The man smiled and reached for something inside the house. “You already did. My name’s Chow, like it says on the card. If you can read, you see it says ‘lawyer.’ Should also say ‘bodyguard’ and some other things. But, since I’m his lawyer, talking to me is like talking to him. And, since I’m his lawyer, I know you can’t just come in here and push him around. Come back when you got a warrant. Better, just don’t come back.” He started to close the door and Terry blocked it.
“We’ll be back,” he said.
“We’ll be here.” Then Chow paused and looked at Blackbeard. “Your own damned fault. Same everywhere we go: local talent wants to try its shot at the big star, wind up mad that Jeremy’s not the character from the TV, mad that he won’t put them in the movies, mad that there’s no happy-ever-after for them. I got to clean it up, but it’s your fault. Keep them away, we won’t have this.” Then the door closed.
Terry ranted halfway back to town. Blackbeard just drove.
“Easy morning, Connie?” said Blackbeard to the woman hosing down Panama City’s lone autopsy table when they walked into the morgue. Dr. Connie Barnet looked at him tiredly. “Yeah. Cutting up a girl the age of my daughter makes me glad I took this job. Sure it’s been a fun one for you, too. At least mine’s done. You want preliminary?”
“At least the Chamber of Commerce can stop calling. Wasn’t a shark; couldn’t have been a shark. Sharks don’t leave rust in the bite marks. Some kind of knife or tool, used over and over to make the pattern. We’re still trying to figure what.”
“Had to be a shark. There was a tooth,” said Terry.
“Oh yeah. Some tooth. Tooth that big, the shark that owns it bites you, you float up to shore in two pieces. Most sharks don’t sign their own teeth, either.” She picked up a plastic bag and showed them the tooth, big as the palm of their hands, with “Shark” engraved in an angry script.
“Either sharks have learned to write, and label their teeth so they won’t get them mixed up with the grouper’s, or this is a souvenir from the TV show. You know, starts out at the crime, Shark outraged at the terrible thing somebody’s done, he stares into the sun, sneers some hopefully tough and clever line, throws down his calling card, a tooth like this, and you know that he won’t rest until he’s got justice for us all, somewhere in the next forty eight minutes. Usually throws one down at the end, just for good measure.”
“We’ve heard about the show. So Shark’s some kind of detective?”
“Nothing that simple. He works in the police department, job that would basically be a file clerk here, but that lets him be a combination of scientist, psychic and hit man. Lets him do a much better job than you plain old detectives. Hey, almost forgot. Mark in Tech said to tell you he had something for you when you came by.”
Mark was excited when they got there. “Hey, I’m making you guys some prints from this. Joran, one of the patrolmen, got this from the video from Ron Jon’s. He rewound it back a few frames and played. They watched a car stop on the gulf side of the street. A big man got out, looked around, opened the back door, and pulled a woman out. He disappeared out of the frame for a while, then came back alone, got in the car and drove away. They rewound it and watched again.
“Stop it there,” said Terry. “That’s Chow.” He looked at Blackbeard. Blackbeard shrugged.
“I’ve printed you copies of that frame, and blown up the face as much as I could.” He handed them the prints.
“That’s Chow,” said Terry. Blackbeard nodded. They kept watching.
“The girls not moving,” said Terry. “Could be dead already.”
“Or drunk,” said Blackbeard.
“Or dead,” said Terry. “This nails it. We need to pick him up.”
“No,” said Blackbeard. “But it’s sure as hell enough for a warrant for the car, maybe the house.”
“Warrant? By the time that request goes up through Bay County, across to Walton County, and back to us, they’ll be back in LaLa Land laughing at us, and we’ll never touch them there. That’s assuming the mayor or some other politician doesn’t step in to keep us from embarrassing a famous tourist.”
“Maybe. You got to work procedure.”
“Maybe? Blackie, you know I’m right. We already tipped them off, going out there half-cocked. They’re probably packing now. If we’re lucky.”
Blackbeard sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. I know I’m going to regret this, but you’re right. Mark, take this to the Lieutenant and ask him to start pushing a warrant ASAP. We’ll be out there when they get there.”
They pretended not to hear the buzzing of their cells as they cut down Highway 98 back to Rosemary Beach. Blackbeard parked at a restaurant at Alys Beach across from the house.
“Going in the same way?” asked Terry.
“Don’t think they’ll answer the door this time. Let’s try something different.”
They walked past Alys Beach, every house gleaming an identical white in the afternoon sun, past the pool with the flowing curtains that had been featured in Southern Living and Architectural Digest, past the little hot dog wagon to the beach access. College girls in small bikinis and kids digging in the sand stared at the two angry men in suits walking across the sand as fast as they could go, the little one in the lead with his head down and the big one in the white suit struggling to keep up and talking faster than he was walking. They passed the “No Trespassing” sign coming up from the beach to the Nautilus House. Terry pulled the sign up and threw it down onto the sand.
The deck of the house was blue granite and the size of a small airport. A tiny man sat alone wearing a Speedo, sunning himself and sipping an orange drink.
“Jeremy Speller?” said Blackbeard.
He opened his eyes. “Guys, I don’t give autographs when I’m here. You need to go back to the beach and leave me alone.”
“Can’t,” said Terry. “We’re Detectives Blackbeard and Terry. We need to ask you some questions about a dead girl you knew. Hope you don’t mind.” He pulled up a chair next to Speller. “You know, you look a lot bigger on TV.”
“Everybody does. Is this a gag? Am I supposed to go into character for this, or what?”
Terry showed him the picture of the girl, dead. “No gag. You want to tell us about her?”
Speller looked around like he was waiting for a script, then decided how he wanted to play it. They were cops; he knew how to talk to cops.
“Some local broad. Named Jo or Yo or Mo, not that it matters, not that anything matters.” He wiped the side of his mouth and stared at the sun.
“Don’t wipe your mouth like that,” said Blackbeard. “Worked for Bogie; don’t work for you. Not on TV, not here. This isn’t a TV show. We need real answers. When did you last see her?”
“Last night. Or a couple of nights ago. Who knows? One night’s like another.”
“Oh Jesus,” said Terry. So this was what they were going to get, the tough Shark, the one that banged heads and solved crimes until the last scene when you saw that he really had a heart of gold. Blackbeard wondered if they could get to the heart of gold if they stayed with him for forty eight minutes. Wondered if he could put up with forty eight minutes of this. Didn’t have to. Chow walked out of the house, two Walton County Sheriff’s deputies and the Walton County Sheriff himself behind him.
“Can’t you clowns read a ‘No Trespassing’ sign?” he said.
“Must have fallen down,” said Terry. He took the picture of Chow dumping the girl and shoved it in her face. “You told us you hadn’t seen her lately.”
Chow looked at it. He was rattled for a moment, then regained his control.
“I told you I didn’t remember. And I don’t.”
The sheriff looked at Blackbeard. “Donnie, we’re taking this one. Bay County told us a warrant’s coming. We’ll hold things until it gets here.” He paused. “Hope to hell you know what you’re doing.”
“Me, too,” said Blackbeard. “Me, too.”
Terry and Blackbeard sat in their car at Pier Park, sitting in the same spot they had started out in yesterday morning, sipping coffee and waiting for the boy to show up. It was an hour or so before dawn, false dawn when the sky is light without any sign of the coming sun. The waves were gentle, a few lines of white foam glowing in the light, the white sand of the beach glowing, everything else black and shadows.
“This place really is beautiful,” said Terry. “I used to come down here as a boy. No place like it. White, white sand and water you can stand chest deep in and still see your toes. Good people, friendly, real. You know where people are coming from, down here. Except for the real estate guys. Debbie was so happy when I took early retirement from Chicago PD and took the job down here two years ago. You boys that have been here your whole lives don’t know how good you’ve got it.”
“We know,” said Blackbeard, sipping his coffee. “Even with all the changes. I can remember when all this was scrub oak, and a beach house was a shack you didn’t put more than a thousand dollars in because you knew it was going to blow away someday. The only thing that doesn’t change is the water. My daddy was a waterman. Used to go out with him to bring in crabs. Still rather be out by the reefs, or on the river up by Wewahitchka, than anywhere that has a condo.”
“So, did Chow do it alone, or did the star get in on it.”
“Don’t know nothing yet,” said Blackbeard.
“C’mon, you know Chow’s dirty.”
“I know the difference between what I know and what I believe.”
Terry finished his coffee and wadded up the cup. “I hope to hell this kid’s got something for us. So far, Walton County’s got nothing from the car or the house. Car’s been cleaned, but Chow says he cleaned up vomit, not blood. News has already picked up the story. We’re hanging a lot on this kid.” He paused but Blackbeard said nothing. Blackbeard was senior, and local. This would be his if it turned to crap. Terry said, “So tell me about this kid.”
“Sad story, but a common one. Local boy. Went off to one of those useless little wars in a useless part of the world. Got shot up bad, came back barely functional in the head. Sleeps on the streets somewhere, collects his disability, makes a few bucks raking the beach. Just wants to be left alone, won’t talk about nothing but the old days and how good it used to be. I took him out fishing a couple of times, but I think he mostly lives inside his own head these days. If we don’t catch him here early, we’ll never find him. Might be a dead end; maybe he saw something.”
“But if he saw something, that’ll be the nail,” said Terry. “We’ll have ourselves a Shark, and his whole California crew.”
“You turning local now?”
“Told you, I’ve been local. Going to lose the Chicago accent any day.”
Terry pointed. There was a big figure standing in the shadows on the beach, slowly raking the sand.
“Don’t spook him,” said Blackbeard, opening his door. “He runs, we’ll never find him.”
But he didn’t run. He turned and watched, leaning on the rake, as they walked down to the beach.
“Benji, it’s Detective Blackbeard. You remember me?”
“Yes, sir. I knowed it was you by the way you walk.”
“How you been?”
“Weather’s been dry. Don’t have to worry about the rain so much.”
“It has been a dry May.” Blackbeard paused, looking for the rhythm of the conversation, but Terry was impatient.
“Something bad happened down here yesterday, son, and we need you to tell us if you know anything about it. You ever seen this guy?” Terry held a picture of Chow under the streetlight. Benji looked.
Terry looked at Blackbeard. “When?”
“Yesterday morning, sir. Right here.” He looked over at the street.
“He threw Yo out. Just put her on the sidewalk like a bag of trash.”
Terry was excited. “Then what? Was she alive then? What did he do to her?”
Blackbeard put his arm on Terry.
“Benji, let me see your rake,” he said. Benji handed him the rake and looked down.
“Just tell it, Benji.”
“He kicked her in the butt and she started crying. He laughed and threw something at her and got in the car and drove away, her begging him not to leave her. It ain’t right what he done to her. It ain’t right.”
“No, Benji, it’s not.” Terry wanted to say something, but Blackbeard put his hand on his arm and they waited on Benji.
“I told her she was too good for them. I told her she ought’n to let them treat her that a way.” He paused. “Then she laughed at me. Told me she was getting out of this hick town and going to Hollywood and be something, not end up a piece of a man doing nothing but raking the sand.” He looked at Blackbeard. “The sand’s all we’ve got left. This used to be a live oak thicket I’d play in when I was a boy. Now it’s just sand and condos. I can take care of the sand.
“I tried to show her, but she wouldn’t listen. Wouldn’t listen, then she spat in my face. Didn’t mean nothing by it. I knew she was drunk. But I couldn’t let them ruin her, too.
“I hit her with the rake, then I hit her again and then I was crying. I raked the sand around her, and then I left.”
“Benji,” said Blackbeard. He handed the rake to Terry and put his arm around Benji’s shoulders. “What about the shark’s tooth?”
“That’s what he threw at her. I picked it up, and stuck it in her. So you’d know. They did it. They killed her; not the rake. They killed her.”
Terry and Blackbeard sat in their car and watched as the patrolmen finished up the paperwork and loaded Benji into the cruiser. Blackbeard started the car.
“Where’s breakfast, partner?” he said.
Terry was looking out to sea. “Don’t feel hungry. Don’t feel right.”
“It ain’t right. You do your job. Sometimes, you get the bad guy. Sometimes, you just get the guilty guy.”
Terry smiled in the darkness. “Maybe I’ll make that my line.”
Blackbeard put the car in Reverse and backed out. “Well at least now you’re stealing local.”