Authors: Michael Lister
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Hard-Boiled, #Religious
“The hell you thinkin’?” Steve Taylor asked.
He was leaning over, looking down at me through the partially opened window of the patrol car, his spotless, wrinkle-free uniform fitting as if it were made for him. All his clothes looked that way, and it wasn’t just that he was trim and muscular. It was the way he wore them—the way he carried himself, the razor-thin line he walked between confidence and cockiness.
“That your officer’s too much of an idiot to know he wasn’t dealing with a floater,” I said.
His pale blue eyes widened under arched brows. “And you couldn’t’ve just told him?”
“I did,” I said. “Several times.”
Steve and I hadn’t gotten along when we both worked as deputies for my dad. It started out as a personality conflict with an unhealthy dose of competition, but eventually escalated into dislike because of disagreements we had over cases we worked together.
“Heard you became a chaplain,” he said.
“I’d hoped that meant you’d changed, but you haven’t. Always gotta be right. Never were a team player—even when it was your dad’s team. One look and I would’ve known that body hadn’t been in the water long enough to be a floater.”
He was right. I was wrong. It was obvious, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it, to apologize to him for potentially destroying evidence or giving a defense attorney reasonable doubt on physical evidence alone. What I had done was yet another sign of just how badly I needed to be at St. Ann’s. It didn’t happen too often, but occasionally I would do something so unexpected—especially to me—act out in some erratic way, that it let me know I had far more to deal with than I wanted to believe.
Opening the door, he said, “Come on.”
Without uncuffing me, he led me back over to the body. Like Tommy Boy, I was still dripping, my soaking clothes clinging to my body, but unlike him, I was feeling the bite of the breeze. He wasn’t feeling much of anything at all.
The others gathered around us.
“Listen up,” Steve said. “I know most of you are new and haven’t had much experience, which is why I told you to wait for me to get here. We’re not gonna have a lot of homicides or suicides or even accidents around here. Hell, we don’t have a lot of anything—which is why we live here, right?”
“And why we’ll be moving if Gulf Paper gets its way,” Muscle-fat said.
The others laughed, but like the shrieks of the gliding gulls all around us, the sound was quickly carried away by the wind.
Since the paper market had softened and the paper mill had closed, Gulf Coast Paper Company, now the Gulf Coast Company, the largest landholder in the state of Florida, was in the process of developing some of its 900,000 acres of Panhandle land into resorts, golf courses, gated communities, condominiums, and other sins against the unspoiled beauty of the one part of Florida we had always naively believed was Disney and Spring Break proof.
For almost six decades, the Gulf Coast Paper Company had supervised its Panhandle acres in an unsurprising fashion, growing and harvesting pines and turning them into pulp at its mill in Bridgeport. It had quietly ruled a barely visible backwater empire of fast-growing slash pines, loggers, and paper mill workers, but times had changed, and in the new economy, the land itself and not the trees or pulp or paper had become the commodity.
Soon the Forgotten Coast of Florida would be anything but, and a way of life would become as extinct as the endangered species sacrificed in the temple of tourism to the American god of greed.
“Every time we have a suspicious death,” Steve continued, “it’s an opportunity for you to learn more about investigative techniques.”
Each of them nodded, fully concentrating on Steve’s sage-like words.
With sun-bleached blond hair and deeply tanned skin, Steve looked more like a waterlogged surfer than a respected chief of police, and I could tell by the way the women responded to him that most of them found him intensely appealing.
“Now,” he continued, “someone tell me why this victim is not a floater.”
“Because he didn’t float,” the female EMT said.
“Uh huh,” Steve said, “but
Standing there, shivering in the cold breeze, hands cuffed behind my back, I felt embarrassed, foolish, and frustrated, all of which were quickly turning to anger.
“He didn’t float,” Steve said, when no one was able to answer his question, “because he hasn’t been in the water long enough for decomposition to begin and gas to form in his tissue causing him to float up to the surface. So, as our friend from Potter County pointed out, a body in water is not necessarily a floater.”
“If he hadn’t gotten caught in Eli’s nets…” Muscle-fat said.
“It would have been a while before we found him,” Steve said. “Gas forms faster in warm water and more slowly in cold water. Ours aren’t as warm as they usually are, but they’re not freezing either, so it would have taken days. All of this helps us establish time and ultimately
of death. Speaking of which, are we dealing with a homicide, suicide, or accident?”
When no one in the group gave more than a shrug, he turned to me.
I shrugged too.
“You mean you don’t know everything?” Muscle-fat said.
“I figured you were about ready to reveal the killer’s identity to us by now,” Steve said.
“With drownings—if that’s what we’re dealing with—it is extremely difficult to determine the cause,” I said. “That’s why it’s so important to do things the right way from the very beginning.”
“Like tossing the body back into the water?” Muscle-fat asked. “That’s something they never taught us.”
I didn’t say anything. I deserved that and a lot more, and I would just have to take it.
“You guys see any signs of lividity on his face or hands?”
They all strained to look, but there was none to see, so they shook their heads.
“Why would we expect to see some?” Steve asked me.
“Because, Professor Taylor,” I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster with chattering teeth, “when a body is in the water, its extremities hang down toward the bottom.”
“So the fact that there aren’t any signs of lividity means what?” Steve asked the others.
“He hasn’t been in the water long,” the female EMT said.
“Which is what we would expect to see in light of the fact that he wasn’t found floating,” Steve said. “There’s also no signs of violence on the body, and since suicides by drowning are very rare, we’re probably dealing with an accident, but let’s keep an open mind while we investigate and wait for the autopsy report.”
They all nodded.
“That okay with you?” Steve asked me.
I gave him a small smile and nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“I think his mouth’s frozen shut,” Muscle-fat said.
“That’s too much to hope for,” Steve said, “but he does look a little blue. Better get him back in the car.”
This time Muscle-fat himself escorted me to the car and shoved me into it. After slamming the door, he rejoined the others around the body, where they stayed for a long time, talking and laughing and waiting for the medical examiner to arrive.
Since I had been at St. Ann’s, I had been undergoing counseling with Sister Abigail, and as I sat alone in the backseat of the patrol car, all I could think about was what she would make of all this.
?” Sister Abigail asked.
I told her again.
“And you were arrested?”
I shook my head. “Steve said something about the embarrassment and humility doing more for me than a night in a jail cell could.”
I had run into Sister Abigail on the way to my room to change into some warm, dry clothes, and she had insisted I tell her all about it first.
“Let’s hope he’s right,” she said with a glint in her eye.
In her midfifties, Sister Abigail’s pale skin, extra weight, and wispy reddish-blond hair made her look older than she was, but her wit and the wicked twinkle she often got in her eyes made her seem much younger.
“Let’s,” I said.
“You scaring yourself yet?” she asked.
“A little,” I said. “Yeah.”
“Good,” she said. “If you weren’t, you’d be scaring me.”
Presently, St. Ann’s Abbey was a cross between a spiritual retreat center, a psychiatric treatment facility, and an artists’ community, but it had once been a very exclusive theological seminary and prior to that a Spanish mission.
Dedicated to art, religion, and psychology, St. Ann’s was operated by Sister Abigail, a wise and witty middle-aged nun who supervised the counseling center, Father Thomas Scott, an earnest, devout middle-aged priest in charge of religious studies and spiritual growth, and the acclaimed young novelist Kathryn Kennedy, who was responsible for artistic studies and conferences.
Surrounding the small but ornate chapel at its center, St. Ann’s consisted of two dormitories—one on either side—a handful of cabins down by the lake, a cafeteria, a gym, and a conference center with offices.
The natural beauty of St. Ann’s was nurturing, and I found myself breathing more deeply as my eyes tried to take it all in. The small lake was rimmed with cypress trees, Spanish moss draped from their jagged branches. Enormous spreading oaks and tall, thick pines grew on the gently rising slope coming up from the lake, on the abbey grounds, and for miles and miles in every direction.
“Lucky for you, this is a slow time for us,” she said. “Why don’t we move our little visits to twice a day?”
Our “little visits” were actually counseling sessions to help me deal with my divorce, the death of my potential family, and the overall miserable mess I had made of my life.
It was a slow time at St. Ann’s because it was early December and most everyone was already away for the holidays. Now through March was also off-season, the time when the least amount of visitors came to St. Ann’s, which was what had appealed to me most.
“You sure seeing me twice a day won’t be too much for you?” I asked.
“I think I can handle it, but if I have to, I can always call in backup.”
Continuing past the chapel, we turned toward my dorm. As we did, I caught a glimpse of Kathryn Kennedy down near her cabin. She had her laptop out on the porch and was clicking away between sips of coffee.
She was a gifted novelist and one of the reasons I had chosen St. Ann’s. Her work had entertained, enlightened, and inspired me, and I kept telling myself it was her writing and not the mysterious figure in the author photo that was the main attraction. I had yet to meet her, but hoped to soon––and to tell her what her books had meant to me.
“Why doesn’t she wear a habit?” I asked.
“Kathryn?” she asked, her head still down, and it bothered me that she knew who I was referring to without looking up. “She’s not a nun. She was a novice for a while, but she’s never taken any vows.”
I nodded and looked away, trying to seem only mildly interested.
Between our shoes and the sandy soil, fallen pine needles and the exposed roots of the giant trees made the ground slippery and treacherous for someone of Sister’s age and weight, and we walked slowly, my hand lingering near her arm in case she slid or stumbled.
“She might as well have taken them, though. She lives as cloistered as I do. Such a lovely girl. Shame she’s so lonely.” Stopping suddenly and turning to me, she added, “You’re not the type of man who would take advantage of a lonely young woman like that, are you?”
I shook my head.
“Too bad,” she said.
I looked at her. “What?”
“Tell me,” she said, as she started to walk again, “do you think young Tommy drowned accidentally or killed himself?”
Why had she waited so long to ask about him?
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But I’ll be happy to look into it for you. With drownings it’s difficult to determine, but I can at least narrow it down to a likely scenario.”
“Aren’t you here because of how badly you’ve been affected by the homicide investigations you’ve conducted?”
“In part, yeah, but—”
“What do you think getting involved in one now would do to the therapeutic process? Why do you think I was hesitant to even ask you about it?”
The cry of a loon across the lake drew my attention in time to see Tammy Taylor and Brad Harrison emerging from the tree-covered trail at the water’s edge. The narrow path cutting through the thick woods twisted around the lake and was used for meditative strolls or less lofty pursuits, as in the case of Tammy and Brad.
One of a handful of troubled teens undergoing both spiritual and psychological counseling, Tammy looked sixteen, though I was told she was at least three years older. Harrison was thirty-something and the abbey’s handyman—and not the only person at St. Ann’s that Tammy wandered into the woods with on a regular basis.
“What’s the abbey’s policy on sexual relations?” I asked.
“It’s generally frowned upon,” she said.
Though the libidinous couple was walking several paces apart, they were still straightening their clothes and arranging their hair—something that brought a disapproving glare from Sister Christine King, a small, boyish young nun near the chapel, and Keith Richie, the much-tattooed cook enjoying a smoke beside the dumpster at the back of the kitchen.
“I think I can handle it,” I said as we started walking again.
“Looking into Tommy Boy’s death. This isn’t exactly prison. It’s not someone I knew. It’d give me something to—”
“Take your mind off what you really need to be dealing with?” she asked.
“But don’t you want to know what happened to him?”
“Are you the only one who can tell us?”
“No. Of course not.”
Streaming down through the trees, the midday sun dappled the uneven ground, but couldn’t completely remove the chill from the air.
“But you think the chances of finding the truth are better if you’re involved?”
“I do. Is that arrogance or confidence?”
“Something to think about,” she said.
“So much to think about.”
“Father Thomas worked with Tommy for a long time,” she said. “He’s going to be devastated. I don’t think you should work the investigation, but you
help me tell him what’s happened.”