Smith is an eccentric genius when it comes to solving crime. Early draft.
Morning was thrust upon me too early as my cell phone began braying a little past eight. In a perfect world, I would sleep at least until 10 a.m. each day, but that rarely happened. I reached for the phone and tucked it between my ear and the pillow, never opening my eyes. “Hello?” I croaked.
“Kath, it’s Grant. Sorry to wake you, but we need Smith’s brain.”
“Okay, as long as it doesn’t involve having to wake up.”
Grant laughed, a hearty bellow that rung in my sleep-deprived head. “I wish that was possible, but I’ve got just the challenge that will entertain Smith. Can the two of you meet me up at Westview Lake as soon as possible?”
A sigh slipped through my mouth. “Sure.”
I really shouldn’t complain. Work not only means money, but it also means that Smith and I are able to do more than stay home. And while Smith often loses himself in cases, I know he’s happy, because he’s in his element. I enjoy it for the adrenaline rush that comes from solving a crime and the danger in which we sometimes find ourselves. I often pass the time between cases by freelancing, writing fluff pieces for newspapers and magazines, but that was nothing more than an opportunity to keep myself from going stir-crazy until real work came along.
I rolled over, expecting to find Smith still asleep. Instead, his piercing eyes stared at me from beneath sleepy eyelids. “Morning, Kath,” he said, his voice rocky from sleep. “What did Grant say?”
“Not a whole lot. He wants us to meet him at Westview Lake. He’s got a challenge for you.”
Smith’s eyes sparkled as a grin stretched across his face. “Fantastic!”
With that, he rose from the bed and plodded toward the bathroom. His wiry frame seemed fuller in the faint daylight that snuck into the room. His naked form never failed to arouse me, but today I still found myself wallowing in embarrassment.
“Smith,” I called out to his retreating form, “I’m sorry for getting upset last night.”
Looking over his shoulder at me, he shrugged. “It’s okay. Do you mind if I shower first today since I’m already up? You can rest a bit longer since you didn’t get a lot of sleep last night.”
So he had noticed. “Sure,” I said, pulling the covers up over my face and hiding a faint smile.
______ ______ ______
The drive to Westview Lake is beautiful scenery-wise as it takes you into Texas Hill Country. The land to the northeast of town rises into rolling hills covered by live oak trees that remain a deep, verdant olive until the fall when they erupt into an impressionist’s mix of golds, bronzes, oranges and scarlets. The hills form a border along the eastern side of the lake, creating a panorama that made me want to build a cabin out along the lake and settle down for the rest of my life to enjoy the view.
While the landscape is lovely, the drive to the lake is fairly annoying. It is only accessible by county roads, which are paved but narrow and unkempt. The asphalt had buckled in some places and large potholes dotted the trail, a reminder to keep your eyes on the road, not on the breathtaking views.
Smith didn’t care for driving, as it often got in the way of his thinking. He never bothered getting a driver’s license, as he would have to learn to focus on the task far too much for his liking. While that was the excuse he gave, I also suspected it had something to do with the fact that his parents had been killed in an auto accident. However, he couldn’t just avoid driving, not in our town, which only had a rudimentary bus system, which is why I drove us everywhere.
So I drove us out to the lake. I wouldn’t have minded, apart from the rough terrain. With my hands white-knuckling the steering wheel, I cursed the road and wished we had an SUV like most Texans instead of a small sedan. “Please don’t rip off my oil pan,” I begged each time I was unable to avoid a pothole.
“Smith, can you call Grant and find out where exactly we’re meeting him?” I swerved but still hit the edge of a dip, throwing us hard against our seatbelts.
I continued to curse the road as Smith called Grant. The car was less than half a mile from the lake’s first entrance when my husband ended the call.
“Grant says to turn left on County Road 521 and take it to the T. There, you turn right and follow the road to the dock. He’s parked there, along with Dr. Mitiri and quite a few cops. Oh, and underwater rescue.”
“Thanks.” I tried to smile at Smith, but it was hard to do so through my soured grimace. Underwater rescue meant a drowning, something that creeped me out horribly. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so excited to take on this new case.
Over the years, Smith and I had investigated more than our fair share of deaths – I’m sure Smith knew the exact number, while I preferred to forget. The bodies ranged from seemingly peaceful to so gory they haunted my dreams. But gore always paled in comparison to drowning. Maybe it’s because the first drowning case Smith and I worked was a baby killed by a father angry to be saddled with the burden he felt his child was. Maybe it’s because a drowned body resembles anything other than a human, especially if it has begun to decompose and became part of the food cycle. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I am terrified of what lies beneath water, and for good reason.
I was eight the summer I nearly drowned. My father’s family had a lake house in northern New Hampshire, where we’d spend our summers. My cousins and I would splash about in shallow waters most of the time. We had heard too many stories of death lurking in the deeper water of the lake.
One day, however, my cousin Dale, who was twelve, decided to show off by leaping into the lake from the rope swing normally reserved for adults. He called out to the kids, challenging us to complete the same feat. Reason kept the other kids grounded, but I hated being called a chicken. That’s funny in retrospect, since the event turned me into a chicken where water was concerned, but that day I needed to prove I could do it.
I ran up the hill through the brush that reached out onto the path, trying to hold me back and possibly even keep me safe. Dale stood at the top, rope in hand and a self-righteous grin on his face. I grabbed the rope and stood in the wide-apart stance I had seen my father assume summer after summer. With a deep breath to steel my resolve, I leapt without thinking. Thinking would have been the smart thing to do as I likely would have talked myself out of such brazen stupidity, a phrase that I have heard quite often throughout my life, especially after meeting Smith.
My small body rocketed through the air, the wind trying its best to slow me down but not enough to make a difference. At the apex of the swing, I let go, again mimicking my father’s movements. I paused for a moment, wondering if I had started flying, but then gravity caught up to me. I dropped through the water in what we called a toothpick, my body ramrod straight, my toes en pointe like the ballerina I was not graceful enough to be.
I kept falling down until my tiptoes smushed into the lake’s muddy bottom. Kicking off, I rose about six inches before I found myself jerked back. Something had wrapped around my right ankle, pulling me down. Panic ripped through me. The stories Dale had told the summer before were true! There were dead bodies in the lake that would pull down kids, drowning them so that they could have the families they lost when they died!
I struggled to break free, my breath shooting from my lungs in the process. My head throbbed, and my lungs strained to the point I thought they’d burst from my chest. I fought the urge, but I had to breathe. I had to scream. Instead of sweet, soothing oxygen and escape, I gulped in the muddy water. The bottom of the lake was darker than anything I had ever experienced, leaving me to imagine what horrible thing was killing me, keeping me away from all I loved forever. I choked, sputtered and coughed, while trying to escape, but escape only came as my world went dark and I stopped caring about what held me back.
I woke up lying in the mud with my lungs and throat on fire. One of the younger kids had run to tattle as I climbed the hill. She saved my life when she told my dad, who rushed to the water and dove in after me. Dale pointed him in the right direction, and my dad pulled me out less than a minute after I had passed out. Laying on the chilly ground, my body in agony, I learned that a dead body hadn’t captured me. Seaweed had wrapped around my leg, holding me in place.
The rope swing came down that day, never again to make an appearance. I never visited the lake after that. I still took baths, swam in pools and visited water parks. I just never stepped into another lake. I even avoided boats if I could help it. Hopefully, today I would be able to experience the lake from afar.
I found the road that Smith had alluded to, a dusty gravel trail that felt surprisingly smoother than its paved predecessor. The road curved back and forth throughout the bluffs surrounding the lake, and as I turned at the T intersection, the sparkling blue-gray water began to peek through the hills and oak and cedar trees. The water and trees could leave me in awe on a normal day, but not today. The closer I drove, the more my stomach soured.
Smith sensed my anxiety. He reached over, grabbing my right hand and giving it a slight squeeze. “Thank you,” I whispered, squeezing his hand in return and giving him a weak smile.
Looking back at the road, I saw we were approaching the dock. SUVs were parked on each side, a few still flashing emergency beacons, though I couldn’t fathom why. A small crowd had gathered at the base of the dock, ignoring the sheet-draped body lying on the ground. They were waiting on Smith before doing anything further. And as he exited the car, the crowd lined up to meet him, only Grant staying apart from the rest.
I stayed in the car a bit longer trying to calm the ragged gasps erupting from my chest. Smith would be doing most of the work, but I needed to project some semblance of calm. I counted to five between each inhale and exhale until I could do so with smooth, even breaths. Even the trembling in my hands had calmed, I noticed as I reached for the door. I could do this.
By the dock, Smith was holding court. Grant must have caught him up on the situation, and now Smith was processing what he had heard, asking questions to fill in the gaps he found. I know that, at this point, there couldn’t be much of a story, but Smith had to have found enough of a small trail to move forward. He cut off Grant and walked over to the body. My stomach quailed. I wanted so badly to turn away, but I needed to do this for Smith. Squatting down, he looking me in the eye and gave me a warm smile.
Thank you, I mouthed. Smith winked then turned his attention to the corpse, pulling back the wet linen covering it.
I wanted to gasp at the sight of the water-swollen body, but knowing I’d be the only one doing so, I bit the inside of my cheeks and paled. Thankfully, I was not the only one uneasy at the sight of the body. Several officers turned to look out over the water. I don’t blame them. The sight was not pleasant.
From my vantage point, I could only see the head, which had begun to decompose and had served as fish food. What remained of the bulging skin hung off the body like a deflated tire. The skin had turned a murky mottled green-blue-gray, and it was hard to differentiate between the brackish seaweed and ribboned chunks of dark hair that wrapped around the face.
Honestly, it was hard to say whether the body was male or female until Smith pulled the sheet completely from atop the body. The bloat made it difficult to determine whether the body had been trim or just slightly out of shape moving toward fat. Two breasts rose up, though, answering our question of sex, which could have been difficult to prove without an autopsy due to some very severe mutilation of the vaginal area. The body appeared to be tall, maybe even an inch or so taller than Smith, but it was hard to compare as he crouched beside it.
Smith examined the body without touching it. He moved from head to feet and back again, completing a circle around it. I found myself smiling at his crablike scuttle about the body, but I was alone in doing so. The faces of those watching his examination remained stoic throughout the process.
Back at the woman’s head, Smith leaned in, almost the way a dog would sniff at an unknown visitor. He zeroed in on her mouth then pulled back. “Dr. Mitiri,” he said, addressing the medical examiner, “may I have a pair of forceps?”
Dr. Joseph Mitiri produced them from the tackle box he carried to crime scenes. Smith took them with a nod of thanks and turned back to the body. With a steady hand, he pulled a small item out of the corner of her mouth. “Magnifying glass?”
Again, Dr. Mitiri produced the requested item. Smith held his find below the glass, studying it with pursed lips and a set brow. Two minutes ticked by before Smith spoke again, this time in a slight murmur. “I know where she was kept before she was killed.”