A small town cop investigates a body found in the ocean.
By Terrell Manasco
The tall man with the weathered face stared out at the ocean and spat between his cowboy boots. A blonde-haired man in a dark suit and shades stood three feet away, his red striped tie flapping in the wind. Blue strobe lights flashed behind them from half a dozen police vehicles.
"What do we got?" Grant said.
"Looks like we got a floater," the cowboy said casually.
Grant took off his shades and peered out at the water, using his hand as a sun visor over his eyebrows. "Hard to tell from here, Jack. Could be anything," he said softly. Three men with wetsuits were wading out to where the object was. It appeared to be wrapped in dark plastic and was about the size of a dolphin. One by one they donned scuba masks and then disappeared under the water.
"Third one this year," Jack said. "Getting to be a habit." His voice sounded like he had swallowed a pound of gravel for breakfast. Grant said nothing, his eyes focused on the object bobbing on the surface of the water. "Last year two fishermen out in a bass boat snagged a line on something they figured was a stump. One of them yanked the line hard and when it broke loose, there was a foot attached to it. Divers went down the next day and found a 1978 Falcon on the bottom, with two bodies in the front seat. One was missing a foot."
Grant didn’t reply. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his slacks and walked slowly down toward the pier. Jack watched him making his way down toward the water, his shiny black shoes leaving a trail in the sand. Stupid arrogant feds, he thought. They all think they’re J. Edgar’s gift to law enforcement. He kicked at the sand with his boot. "Alright, Mr. FBI man, let’s see what you got," he said to himself and followed him down to the ocean.
Forty-five minutes later, the divers made it back to the shore, tugging the object behind them with rope. Jack stood with his hands on his hips, a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, his tie tucked into the waist of his pants so the wind wouldn’t blow it around his face. Grant was to his left, his face reddened by the sun, blonde hair anchored down by gel. Both wore their badges; Jack’s was clipped to his belt, Grant’s hanging on the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Neither seemed to acknowledge the existence of the other.
The body (Jack had been correct after all) was bloated and although identification was not positive at this point, it appeared to be a white male. It had been wrapped in garbage bags and sealed with duct tape. Due to the state of decomposition and swelling, it was virtually impossible to determine age. The odor was odd, a combination of death and the foul stench of the ocean. The corpse was dressed in what appeared to be jeans and a sweatshirt, and wore a pair of white Nike sneakers. Jack nodded toward the body and said, "Somebody plugged him one before he was in the water." He pointed to the corpse’s head. There appeared to be a dime-sized hole behind the right ear. One of the divers scratched his unshaven face with the back of his hand.
"He’s been in the water a few days," he said.
Grant looked at Jack. No kidding.
Jack smirked. From the corner of his eye he thought he actually saw Grant chuckle silently.
Grant squatted down next to the body, head darting left and right, hand covering his nose. Without touching anything, he pointed to the spot Jack had referred to behind the ear.
"Can we turn him over?" he said, as if he wondered why they hadn’t already. The second diver stooped over and began to turn the body. The smell seemed to get a little worse as the body rolled over. Grant, Jack, and the divers all pinched their noses together. Now face-up, the corpse looked like a ghoulish version of a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. His skin was a grayish-white, and his swollen belly looked as if it might burst and spew helium any minute. His eyes were half-shut, and his mouth open as if his last words were not yet spoken. Grant pointed to a gaping hole where the right eye and part of the forehead should have been. "There’s your exit wound."
"Yep," Jack said. "This guy needs more than Excedrin." From out of nowhere a tanned muscular young man with a tan uniform and badge walked up and stood next to Jack. He wore a wide-brimmed hat with a badge on the front and on the sleeve where his bicep was, a patch in the shape of a shield read FAIRHOPE POLICE DEPT. The muscles seemed to ripple beneath his copper skin and his raven-colored hair was pulled back into a ponytail beneath his hat. He wore aviator sunglasses and he twirled a set of keys on a chain around his forefinger as he spoke. He nodded a hello to the men.
"How you fellas doing? Jack, looks like you caught a big one," he said in a soft Alabama drawl. Twirling the keys. Chink. Chink.
Jack dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans and spit between his boots. "Hello, Tom," he said. "We was just debating whether to keep him or throw him back."
Tom grinned, his white teeth gleaming like a row of pearls, and looked down at the corpse. "Nah, he’s too big to throw back. Looks like something besides a shark got this old boy. Who found him?" Chink chink chink.
"Some kids out here cruising on their jet skis spotted what they thought was a dead shark or dolphin. Called me to come down and check it out. Brought my binocs down here and took a look. That’s when I called you."
Tom nodded. He turned to Grant and extended his hand. "Don’t believe we’ve met. Tom Six Horses. I’m the police chief of Fairhope."
“You’re Native American.”
“You speak-um truth, White Man,” Tom said in a voice like one of those Indians in an old John Wayne movie. He thought it was funny but the blonde man didn’t crack a smile.
"Special Agent Stephen Grant, Federal Bureau of Investigation. How do you do." He gripped Tom’s coppery hand and pumped it twice.
The chief’s eyebrows went up a notch. "FBI hmm? Since when do you fellas get called in on something small-town like this?" Jack leaned backward a bit, his hands still in his pockets, and squinted at Grant, who seemed not to notice.
"We’re tracking a serial killer who seems to be moving throughout the Southeast. This appears to be highly similar to his modus operandi," Grant said.
"Is that right? What can you tell me about this guy?"
"Not much. All the victims are between 25 and 50. Killer seems to prefer males. So far no witnesses have come forward. Method of killing seems to be similar; single gunshot wound to the head area, usually near the left ear. Then the body is always wrapped in black garbage bags, then dumped in a lake or river, some large body of water."
“Do we have any idea who this guy is, what he looks like?”
“As I said before, so far there are no witnesses that we know of.” Grant said.
Tom nodded. "What about the murder weapon?"
"Nine millimeter, probably a Beretta."
“Pretty common handgun down South.”
“Yes it is. Well if you’ll excuse me, Chief, I have a homicide to investigate,” Grant said, putting his shades back on.
“Oh, by all means,” Tom said politely. “And you can count on the full cooperation of the Fairhope Police Department.”
“I can’t tell you how warm and fuzzy that makes me feel.” Grant turned and walked back toward the ever-growing crowd of police officers, detectives, scuba divers, and other official personnel, as well as the usual group of beach-combing onlookers.
“What a sweetheart,” the chief said to himself. “I gotta get some of that hair gel.”
The Fairhope sun was low in the sky, hanging over the treetops like a huge glowing red neon ball. Tom was in the cruiser, heading home, and thankful that he’d worked a few minutes late. The rush hour traffic had thinned out and he could easily be home in twenty minutes instead of the usual fifty-five. Traffic was light and he nudged the accelerator a bit, watching the speedometer move closer to seventy-five, almost eighty. Lying next to him on the seat, his two-way radio crackled and he heard Jack’s voice cut through the static. “Fairhope One, this is Base. Copy?” He picked it up and squeezed the TALK button on the side.
“This is Fairhope One. Go ahead.”
"Chief, can you buzz me on the landline?” Jack’s voice sounded a little shaky. Odd. Asking the chief to use a phone was unusual. Jack obviously didn’t want the conversation to be broadcast over the radio.
“10-4, Base. Standby.” He tossed the radio on the seat and dialed Jack’s private number on his cell phone. When Jack answered on the first ring, Tom knew something was definitely wrong.
“We got a positive ID on that floater two days ago, Tom,” Jack said. Suddenly the cowboy sounded a lot less tough.
“Who is it, Jack?” the chief said, trying to be patient. Suddenly his stomach was a refuge for a dozen or more butterflies.
“It’s Sam.” Jack sounded on the verge of tears.
“What? Sam? Sam McNair? Are you sure, Jack?” He felt the blood rushing from his brain. Suddenly Jack’s voice sounded faint, as if he were talking to him from down inside a well.
“Yeah, it’s him, Chief. Dental records confirmed it. Tom, we have to tell Stella. Man, this is gonna kill her.” His voice cracking now.
“Jack, we have to stay calm. I’ll drive out to Sam’s place and tell Stella.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“You sure you can handle this, Jack?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’ll be okay. I’ll meet you at Toby’s place,” Jack said, trying to stay professional. Toby’s was actually Toby’s Bait and Tackle, a ten-minute drive from Sam’s house.
“Alright then,” Tom said, wheeling the cruiser off the interstate onto an exit ramp. “Fifteen minutes?”
Jack sniffed, and it seemed like five minutes had passed before he responded. “Um, yeah. Fifteen minutes. Oh, one more thing, Chief. The divers went back that afternoon and found three cinder blocks and some rope on the ocean floor near the area where Sam- I mean, where the body was found. Somebody didn’t want him found.”
“Thanks Jack. Try to stay calm. See you in a few minutes.”
“Right, Chief. See you in a few.”
Sam McNair had been a Fairhope police officer for twenty-two years when Stella finally persuaded him it was time to hang up the badge and gun and retire. In all his twenty-two years on the force, not once had he ever drawn his gun on the job; not once had he had to shoot or kill anyone in the line of duty. Now he’d been shot and killed, his body dumped in the ocean, apparently anchored down to prevent being discovered. What bothered Tom was why? Why would anyone want to kill Sam? As far as Tom knew, Sam had no enemies, no jealous husbands, no mob bosses, no one who’d want him dead.
Tom pulled the cruiser off the road and drove slowly down the long gravel driveway, past the hunter green fiberglass mailbox that said “Toby’s Bait and Tackle” on the side. The sun was half-buried now behind the trees, and the purple-gray clouds were gathering like mourners at a funeral. He pulled around back, next to Toby’s battered old red Ford pickup. Jack sat behind the wheel of his 95 Chevy Blazer, as black as a raven on a moonless summer night. He was smoking a cigarette, his tanned hairy arm dangling out the window, the smoke wafting up in little blue swirls. Tom slid the gear in PARK, turned his lights off, and waited. Jack seemed not to notice him at first, then suddenly looked up and smiled, a sad little smile.
“You ready?” Tom said, feeling almost as if he were talking to a child.
“No, but let’s get this over with.” He opened the door of the truck, tossed the cigarette down, shut the door quietly, and stamped out the burning ember with the toe of his boot. He walked around the other side of the cruiser and got in. Tom waited, looking down at the floorboard, listening to the motor idling, giving Jack a chance to change his mind. The police radio droned on endlessly, the dispatcher conversing with another officer about a warrant issued on a locally known repeat DUI offender. Finally Jack sighed. “I used to drink a lot in the old days. Came to work pretty messed up once or twice. I’m not proud of that, y’ understand? But Sam….he took me aside one morning, gave me a good tongue-lashing…….told me I was too good a cop to let that stuff ruin my life……said if I was just gonna stay a drunk, I might as well just throw away my badge and gun. I was pretty sore at him for awhile after that.” Jack looked out the window, watching the waves ebb and flow against the beach, seemingly oblivious to the radio squawking every few minutes. “But then a funny thing happened, Tom. I found out what I was really mad at wasn’t Sam. It was me. And then I got so mad, I decided to do something about it. And I started going to AA meetings.” He chuckled to himself. “And you know what, Tom? The very first meeting I went to, I was sitting there, feeling all sorry for myself and all and when it came my turn to stand up… I look around and there sits Sam, on the back row. He looked like a proud father at a softball game or something. His eyes were all wet…After that I never took another drink. I’ve been sober now for thirteen years. He saved my job and probably saved my life. If I hadn’t gotten so mad at him, I ‘d probably be a dead man right now.” He looked around at Tom. “I wanna find the scumbag who killed him, Tom. I wanna find him and hang him up from a tall tree and watch him sway in the wind. Then I wanna cut him down and feed him to the fishes.”
Tom looked up, his eyes straight ahead of them, not sure what to say next. He looked over at Jack, put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Let’s go tell Stella first.” Then he backed the car out of the space, turned on his headlights and drove away.
Tom parked the cruiser two houses down, cut the lights, and got out. Jack followed behind, looking as if he’d rather be in an arena in Spain, surrounded by a herd of rabid bloodthirsty bulls. His head was down, lips pursed, and he walked as if he was afraid of waking up a family of sleeping ants. Tom however appeared as casual as if he were simply going fishing. The moonlight shone through the pine trees, throwing eerie shapes across the lawn. The only light on in the house was the lamp in the living room, and Tom wondered if Stella was even at home. The only sound was the scuffing of his shoes as he climbed the front steps, followed by the soft clop of Jack’s boots behind him. Tom raised his hand and rang the doorbell. After a few seconds he heard a muffled sound inside that could have been someone rising from a chair and slipping on shoes. A minute later he heard the latch open from inside and the door opened. Stella McNair stood in the doorway, dressed in a long pink flannel nightgown. When she saw Tom her hands went up to cover her mouth and her eyes widened. “Tom? That you?”
“Evening Stella. Yes, it’s me. Can we come in a minute?” Tom said softly. He wasn’t looking forward to this any more than Jack, but it had to be done.
“Why sure, come on in,” she said. As they stepped inside, Tom detected the faint smell of mentholatum and something else, perhaps boiled potatoes. No doubt she’d been bothered by her usual aches and pains and had just applied some type of ointment. “Sorry about the mess,” she was saying, “but I’ve not been feeling well today. You know Sam’s been on that fishing trip three days now, and I’ve had the place to myself.” Jack shot Tom a knowing look, which Tom pretended to ignore. “So what brings you fellas out here? Tom, you oughta come out more. Sam’s always talking about going fishing with you."
“Stella, you might want to sit down-“
“Alright, Tom. What is it?”
“It’s about Sam.”
“Sam? What’s he done? He didn’t get pulled over for a DUI, did he?”
“No. We found a body two days ago….”
“A body? Who- who is it?” There was now an undercurrent of desperation floating in her voice. Her hand went to her mouth and she began to moan softly to herself.
“Stella, listen to me.” He grabbed her arms and steered her toward a nearby chair in the den. Over her shoulder he could see the faint blue flicker of the television. “Sit down and just listen to me, please.” She nodded slowly, like a small child. Tom sat down next to her, the butt of his Glock digging into his side. “Stella, we found a body down by the shore where we used to go fishing, you remember? Stella….it’s Sam.” As soon as he said the name, she sagged in her chair, sobbing loudly.
“Ohhhh, Sam, Sam, Sam! Ohhh please don’t be dead, Sam, please!” She covered her face with her hands and moaned loudly. Jack looked as if he would tear up any second. He swallowed hard.
“Stella, I am sorry for your loss. I give you my word I will find the person who did this and make them pay,” Tom said with steel in his voice. “ It’s alright. Don’t worry about this, okay? We’ll find who did this and put them in jail for a long time.” She looked at him again, her eyes filled with tears, nodding again.
“Tom, how can he be dead?” she said, wiping her nose with a tissue, shaking her head slowly in disbelief. “ I just saw him yesterday….no….two days ago…he left to go fishing……and now he’s dead?” And again she began crying loudly, calling his name, the sorrow in her voice sending chills down both his spine and Jack’s.
“I don’t know, but we’ll get to the bottom of this, don’t you worry. Stella. Right Jack?”
“Right Chief. Don’t you worry, Stella...we’ll find out who did this,” Jack said, trying to control the trembling in his voice.
“Thank you, boys,” Stella said softly, patting Tom’s hand, then Jack’s. “I know you will.”
They stayed another half hour or so, Tom asking questions about Sam, if he had made any enemies, if he’d recently had any disagreements with anyone, if she knew of anyone who would have been mad enough at him to want to kill him. She said she could think of no one, that Sam was just the sweetest, kindest man she’d ever known, and she launched into another crying spell, wailing and moaning, asking why, why, why had he been taken from her. She promised to call Tom if she thought of anyone or anything that might shed light on the case.
Later that night, lying in bed, Tom dreamed he was fishing with Sam again and they had caught a big bass on their line. When they began to unhook it, Tom looked down and saw that it had become a dolphin. When he looked closer, the dolphin had Sam’s eyes.
The green and white police cruiser turned off the highway and slowly headed toward the beach. The sky was a clear robin’s-egg blue and the gulf breeze swept across the beach, swaying the trees that lined the hotel strip like the grass skirts of a dozen hula dancers. The cruiser slowed and finally stopped at the edge of the road where the asphalt met the sand. The driver’s door opened and Chief of Police Tom Six Horses stepped out onto the beach. The waves pounded rhythmically against the sand and a group of seagulls, perhaps a dozen or more, circled overhead and sang gull songs. He pushed back his Braves baseball cap and stood and watched the waves ebb and flow, the palm trees swaying back and forth, and listened to the sound of the gulls. Had he not been here only two days ago and seen the decomposed body that had once belonged to his friend, he would have thought to be a perfect picture-postcard scene, a true Kodak moment. Instead, he was thinking of Stella’s face when he’d had to tell her that Sam was dead. In his seven years as police chief of Fairhope, he’d been the bearer of such news countless times, and it was never easy to tell anyone their husband or wife or brother or sister was dead. But this time was different. Sam had been his friend, his good friend, for more than ten years. Sam had been the one who’d actually suggested Tom run for sheriff, and had supported him during his campaign. He'd even personally handed out flyers in the parking lot of the local Winn-Dixie, urging all Fairhope citizens to elect Tom Six Horses as Sheriff of Fairhope because he was the right man for the job; honest, caring, a man with real family values, and who, after all, was a Native American. Tom actually never cared for the latter part, not because he was not proud, but because he didn’t want anyone to think he was using his heritage to get votes. But that was Sam. Sometimes people need to be reminded, Sam had said. Tom had lost the election nonetheless and his opponent, a fellow officer and former Marine named Stan Cooper had been elected, but certainly not because Sam hadn’t given it everything he had.
He stood in the sand for a moment, then walked slowly down to the edge of the water to the spot where only days before they had pulled Samuel Langhorne McNair from the Gulf of Mexico. The morning sun was bright and Tom even squinted behind his shades as he headed down the beach, which was deserted except for a few seagulls about 40 yards down the beach, feeding on whatever scraps of food they could find, and a couple of older men fishing out on a pier. Tom recognized one, a retired coal miner and current member of the city council, and held up his hand in greeting. The man returned the gesture and turned back to his fishing. The air smelled clean for the most part; even the ocean, which normally smelled anything but pleasant, didn’t seem to be as pungent as usual. Reaching into the breast pocket of his uniform shirt, he withdrew a thin cigar and tore off the cellophane wrapping, then slid the cigar between his teeth. He took a Zippo lighter out of his trouser pocket and, in one fluid motion, thumbed back the silvery metallic cover, flicked the wheel, which ignited the flame, and touched it to the end of the cigar, then closed the lid and replaced the Zippo in his pocket. He inhaled the smoke, held it for several seconds, then released it through his nose. If Sam were here, he would have scolded Tom for smoking. Goodness sakes, Tom, put that thing out. What was it that Sam called them? Coffin nails.
That was it. Shoot Tom, them coffin nails will kill you, and you know it. Tom would have laughed good-naturedly and said something like, "I’d quit if I could Sam but if I did, I’d miss these lovely sermons of yours." Sam would have snorted and threw up his hands in one of his I-give-up gestures.
He missed Sam. Terribly.
And he missed his "sermons".
The chirping of his cell phone brought him back to reality and he plucked it out of his pocket and flipped it open. "Chief here," he said softly.
"Hello Chief. It’s Agent Grant. The autopsy is complete on Mr. McNair," was the reply.
"Where are you now?" Tom said.
"The ah, morgue, of course."
"I’ll be there in twenty minutes," he said and hung up.
Agent Grant was leaning against the far wall inside the morgue, sipping coffee. The sleeves of his starched white shirt were rolled up to his elbows, his tie loose around his neck, his suit jacket draped on the back of a chair nearby. A short, rather stocky man with a well-groomed gray beard stood nearby, writing something down in a notebook. He was dressed in a white lab coat and a pair of eyeglasses hung on a chain around his neck. A brass nameplate on his lab coat read CARL WEBBER. Tom Six Horses stood just inside the door, his arms folded across his chest, his head cocked to one side, looking at Grant. The body was nearby on a slab, completely covered in a sheet. Grant eyed Tom over the steam of the coffee as he sipped it, his face still reddened by the Fairhope sun.
“Nice tan,” Tom said, a Mona Lisa smile on his lips. He took off his sunglasses and hung them on his shirt pocket.
“Thanks. I figure a few more days here and people can’t tell us apart.”
“ Maybe I’ll dye my hair blonde. Hello, Carl. How’s the leg?”
Carl looked up from his notebook. “Hello, Tom. Much better, thanks. Doctor says lucky I didn’t break it. Next time I get the urge to mount a roof-top antenna, I’ll hire some other stooge to do it.”
Tom grinned. “Probably cheaper than a medical bill anyway. So what do we got, boys?”
“Mr. Webber, if you would,” Grant said, ever the polite FBI agent. Carl limped over to where the body lay and flipped back the sheet, revealing the body of Samuel Langhorne McNair. Tom moved in closer for a better view. He felt the beginning of a lump in his throat when he saw Sam lying there, but he forced it down. It sickened him to see his friend lying here naked on a slab, his torso cut open and sewn back together in the familiar Y shape, part of his face torn open by a small fragment of metal traveling at near-light speed. That’s not Sam. That’s only a shell, he thought.
“The victim was shot from behind, as you both know, at a range of probably fifty yards,” Carl said matter-of-factly. “The slug entered here,” he said, pointing with a pencil, “ just behind the right ear, then entered the brain….here….“
“You got the report back from ballistics yet?” the chief said. Carl turned around and picked up a small metal bowl on a table behind him. Using a small pair of tweezers, he reached into the bowl and picked something up. When he turned back around, Tom saw that he was holding the slug in the tweezers.
“Nine millimeter, ” Carl said.
“Got a make yet?” Tom said, moving in to get a closer look.
“Yep. It’s definitely a Beretta.”
Grant raised his eyebrows and gave Tom an I-told-you-so look. Tom had his keys out and was beginning to swing them again. Chink chink chink.
“Any signs of a struggle? Skin under the nails, anything like that?” Tom said.
“Nope. Looks like he was shot from a distance.”
“How far would you say?”
Carl shrugged. “Forty, maybe fifty yards.”
“I take it you still like the serial killer for this one?” Tom said to Grant.
“It fits his MO, Chief. Victim shot from behind, usually a nine millimeter Beretta, wrapped in plastic bags, dumped in a river or lake. It’s gotta be him.”
“Uh-huh. You sure about that?”
“Look, Chief, I’ve been tracking this guy for nine months. I know how he operates, how he moves, how he thinks, I can even tell you what he probably ate for breakfast this morning.” He pointed at Sam’s body on the slab. “This is him. This is his work. Trust me.”
Tom nodded. “If you say so. So what’s next? We put on our white Stetsons, jump on our horses and go out and catch the bad guy?” Chink chink.
“That, my friend, is why we have the badges.”
“Badges?” Tom said, mimicking a Mexican accent, which was quite a feat for a Native American. “We don’ need no steenkeeng badges.”
Grant drained the rest of his coffee. “Maybe not, but we sure need a clue,” he said.
The nightstand clock showed 1:32 a.m. in glowing red letters, illuminating the side of the bed in a hazy crimson hue. He opened his eyes and rolled over, and instantly his heart jumped in his chest. There was a man standing ten feet away, silhouetted in the doorway. Tom reached for his Glock but something about the way the man leaned in the doorway made him stop. Then the man spoke.
“I always said you were like a bulldog. Grab onto something and just hang on” He moved a little closer to the bed but Tom never saw his legs move, as if he had just glided there. The voice was so familiar but in the darkness and in his current state of grogginess, Tom couldn’t place it.
“Still driving them coffin nails, I see,” the man said with a resigned laugh. Tom looked over at the pack of Pall Malls on the nightstand and suddenly it clicked.
He was in the room with a ghost.
And not just any ghost, no sir, but a real honest-to-goodness ectoplasmic manifestation of his late and dearly departed friend, one Mr. Samuel Langhorne McNair. And the strange thing was, it felt natural. Tom reached over to switch on the lamp but Sam said, “Just leave it off, Tom.” His voice sounded odd, as if he were standing in an empty room. “I don’t think you can see me if the lights are too bright. I know what you’re thinking, Tom. ‘I could use a cigarette.’ Right? “ Tom nodded. “Like I always said, them nail coffins will kill you.”
“Sam? Is it really you?” Tom said. He sat up slowly in his bed, leaning on his elbows.
“In the flesh. Ha ha. Little joke there. Not so much flesh anymore though.” He stepped to the side and the light shining in the hallway went right through him. Samuel McNair leaned against the dresser and crossed one leg over the other, his boot pointing toward the floor.
“ What are you doing here, Sam?”
“I came to see you. One last time.”
“You came back tonight to say goodbye?”
“That….and to tell you something.” Sam looked up, his dead eyes focused on Tom.
“You’re getting cold.”
“You’re following the wrong trail, Tom. This so-called serial killer had nothing to do with my death.“
“Then who did?” Tom said.
Sam smiled that same impish smile of his, exposing a few rotting teeth. “Why not ask me who killed Jack Kennedy? Shoot, Tommy, if I did that…I mean, where’s the fun? The thrill of the chase? You always loved that stuff. Had to be right there in the middle of it. No sitting on the sidelines for you, boy."
“I must be dreaming. This can’t be real.” Tom wiped his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. This was right out of The X-Files. Where was Agent Fox Mulder when you needed him?
“Maybe so. Maybe not. Look, Tommy, I’m not asking you to abandon your common sense. I don’t expect you of all people to believe you’re sitting in bed talking to a real honest-to-goodness chain-rattling ghost, and I sure as heck don’t expect you to tell anybody we had this conversation. Let’s just say you had a strong hunch you might be on the wrong track and you decided to change game plans, try a new angle. No one in Fairhope needs to know where the information came from.” The impish smile was gone now, and in the dim light Sam looked more serious than he had ever looked in the several years Tom had known him. He rose from his leaning position and stood still, looking down at Chief of Police Tom Six Horses, who was hungering for a cigarette so bad he felt like devouring the whole pack. “Tom, I may not see you again. You’re a good cop, always were. You got good instincts and by jingo, you’re just plain sharp as a tack. But every dog has his off day, as Stella used to say. The person you want is not the one you’re after. You trusted me when I told you that girl from Andalusia was no good for you. Was I right, Thomas? She married your buddy Jerry Fletcher and look what happened. He works three jobs just so he can see his kids and stay outta court. You listened to me then, Tom. You trusted me then. I’m askin’ you to trust me now.”
“So who am I supposed to look at?” Tom said, the sound of his voice echoing off the near empty walls.
“The last person you’d ever think.” Sam raised his right hand slowly, until it was almost even with his head and made the familiar little wave he used to do in his former life when blood still ran in his veins, his thumb and fingers spread apart and waggling slightly."
“Who did it, Sam? Who killed you?” Tom called out, but his voice echoed in an empty room. He blinked his eyes and looked around.
Samuel L. McNair was gone.
Chief of Police Tom Six Horses eased down in his office chair, being careful not to spill his steaming mug of fresh black coffee. He leaned back and took a sip, savoring the robust flavor, and set the cup down on a coaster just as the phone on his desk rang once. Glancing down at the miniature caller ID window, he saw that it was being forwarded from the front desk. Probably someone wanting to complain about a neighbor’s Doberman relieving himself on her prized flower bed. With a sigh he picked up the receiver and laid it on his shoulder, near his ear. “Fairhope Police, Chief Six Horses speaking.”
“Hello, Chief. It’s Special Agent Grant. How’s your morning so far?” Grant said.
“Swell, until I picked up the phone. What’s up, G-Man?”
“Got a little nugget of news I thought you’d be interested in.” Tom could hear Grant’s smirk in his voice.
“Well lay it upon me, Eliot Ness.” Tom said with mock cheerfulness. He took another sip of coffee.
“Well sir, it seems your friend Sam was quite the workaholic. Spent part of his time earning extra cash by driving a cab. Were you aware of that?”
Tom shook his head, momentarily forgetting he was talking on the phone and couldn’t be seen by the other party. “No, can’t say that I am. Guess his pension didn’t cover everything.”
“Well evidently it didn’t cover Uncle Sam. He owed about 12 grand in back taxes.”
“Well I’ll be dogged. How long had he been driving a taxi?”
Grant made a little sound that could have been a sigh. “Maybe two years.”
“Well I’ll be,” Tom said. “Sammy we hardly knew ye. How’d you find this out?”
“Why, through my brilliant powers of deduction, Watson. And I asked around.”
“And you think you know people. No wonder he hardly had time to go fishing.”
“There’s more,” Grant said, the eagerness in his voice barely contained.
“Well, Sammy’s working long hours, he’s never home, and well, you don’t have to be Dr. Joyce Brothers to figure out what happens when hubby’s gone all the time. The missus has needs too.”
“Stella was having an affair?” Tom swallowed more coffee and sat upright in his chair.
“Let’s just say she enjoyed a young man’s company. Once or twice a week.”
“No kidding? Do you have a name or should I perform the Vulcan mind-meld and extract it from your brain?”
“Paul Ray Weston. Owns a local bar, The Wild West Club.” Grant made a sniffing sound, then paused. “Two days ago he withdrew all thirty-five thousand dollars of his savings. No one has seen him since.”
“I’d say that was pretty suspicious. You still going with the serial-killer theory?”
“Let’s say I’m always open to new possibilities.”
“Good, because I got a feeling we’ve been looking in the wrong sandbox.”
“Why is that? Grant said.
“Call it a hunch. What about Stella?” Tom said.
”Tried calling her number but no answer. I have a search warrant and I’m driving out to the house now. You wanna ride shotgun?”
“Does a fat dog fart?” Tom said.
Grant chuckled softly. “Alright, Tonto, meet me outside in ten minutes, I’ll pick you up.”
“Can I play with the siren?”
“Sure. I’ll even let you wear my spurs.”
“Let’s ride then.”
“See you in ten.”
“You got it, G-Man.”
Special Agent Stephen Grant arrived ten minutes later, as promised, and Chief Six Horses was waiting outside. Grant pulled the navy blue Crown Victoria to a stop just parallel to the front steps of the Fairhope Police Department, and Tom opened the passenger door and got in. He caught the sweet smell of Grant’s cologne as he sat down, and immediately thought of a night twelve or so years ago when he’d taken a pretty young lady to a drive-in movie, wearing that very same cologne, and had to take her home early when she had gotten a little queasy and tossed her cookies (and the buttered popcorn he’d just bought her) all the front seat of his 1985 Buick Regal. Her name was Cheyenne something-or-other and she had worked for the Fairhope Water Works Board. In 1997 she was riding with a friend on her way to a Friday night football game when a half-blind old man loaded up on Kentucky whiskey pulled out in front of them from a dirt road into the highway and her friend swerved to miss him and the Mustang they were in plowed up a tree, killing both women instantly. The car had been compacted, crushed like an accordion, the bodies of its occupants broken, bloodied, and almost unrecognizable. Tom shook his head at the memory. He’d been a deputy then, one of the first to respond, and it wasn’t until two days later that he learned Cheyenne had been one of the women in the car. Funny how smells brought back memories.
They drove through downtown Fairhope, past City Hall, the high school, then straight out Highway 98 to Magnolia Beach. Neither said much during the ride, Grant mostly watching the highway before him, only occasionally glancing off to his left at the beaches and ocean off in the distance. Sam’s house, a cozy Cape Cod-type dwelling with pale blue siding and a paved driveway with solar tier lighting, sat back off the main highway about 125 yards or so, flanked on one side by a beach so white it hurt your eyes to look at it for more than a few seconds. Sam had bought the place ten or so years ago when he’d retired from the force.
Grant swung the car off the highway, slowed down a bit, his eyes fixed on the house, and finally parked the car just off the road, strategically positioning it so that a grove of shrubbery was between it and the house. He shut off the engine, reached into his shoulder holster for his Glock, and moved to open his door.
“You packing?” the chief said, a little unsure.
Grant looked back over his shoulder. His tone was matter-of-fact, that ‘you should know better than to ask’ tone. “She had her husband killed, Chief. I don’t plan on being next.”
Chief Six Horses shrugged and got out on his side, his hand gripping his Glock still in its holster. They walked softly toward the house, not walking directly in front but staying to the side, so that anyone looking out wouldn’t see them first thing. Tom followed the FBI man up the sidewalk, watching the windows for any sign that their presence was known. Grant climbed the concrete steps and rapped on the door with his knuckles.
“Down South we have this new invention. It’s called a doorbell. You might give it a try,” Tom said. Agent Grant turned and gave him one of his annoyed looks.
“Who’s there?” a man’s voice called from the rear of the house. Tom opened his mouth to answer but Grant spoke first.
“Special Agent Grant, FBI. Need to talk to you, sir. “
“What’s it about? I’m a little busy right now,” the man said. Grant turned to the police chief and mouthed the name ‘Weston’ with a quizzical look. Tom shrugged.
“I understand that, sir. I’m sure if you just open the door and let us in, we can talk about this inside and—“
Abruptly there was a loud ping! and the window in the door shattered, raining glass fragments all over both men. One fragment struck Tom in the face and a thin red line of blood appeared across his cheek. He instinctively jumped away from the exploding glass, his lean body sailing over the wrought-iron railing on the porch, landing in the grass nearly ten feet away. Grant also dove for cover and had landed on top of some nearby shrubbery. A second later he was back on his feet, gun drawn, eyes blazing fire. Alarmed at seeing the police chief lying on the ground, his cheek bleeding, he called out to him, “Chief! You okay? Are you hit?”
“No, just caught some glass with my face,” Tom said and instantly there was a loud crack! as a small chunk of wood tore away from the door, and Tom ducked as a bullet smacked into a tree just two feet behind him. He thumbed the safety off the Glock and yelled out, “Weston, this is the police! Hold your fire!”
“Got your white Stetson on?” Grant said from over by the bushes. Tom didn’t answer but pointed toward the back of the house and took off running in a crouch, keeping his head low. He reached the rear corner of the house in seconds and stopped, waiting, still keeping low, watching the back door in case Weston decided to bail. He saw no one and moved cautiously around to the back porch, walking softly, staying low and hugging the outside wall of the house, praying that no one heard his footsteps. Suddenly he heard another shot ring out from near the front and he froze for a second, then smiled to himself. Grant was simply firing his weapon to draw attention to himself and away from the chief. He took advantage of the cover fire and moved in closer to the house, carefully peering through the window to the left of the back door. He could see inside to the living room and it appeared there was no one there. Three or four containers of what appeared to be opened bags of luggage lay strewn across the room, some on the couch, a few on the floor. He’d half-expected to see Stella, hog-tied and bound to a chair, beaten, bruised, and hoping someone would find her. The idea that she’d even considered having Sam killed was just unfathomable. This had to be Weston’s idea. Stella was simply incapable of such an act.
“Weston! This is the FBI! We have a warrant! Put down your weapon, put your hands on your head and come out now!” Grant yelled from the front. Tom waited for the response. Ten seconds passed. Fifteen. Then twenty.
“I ain’t going to jail!” Weston yelled back and fired another round. Quickly Tom opened the back door, turned the door handle, relieved to find it unlocked, and slipped quietly inside. Stella was nowhere around that he could see. Still holding the Glock, he moved slowly across the hardwood floor, easing along the walls, and then he saw Weston near the inside of the front door. He was holding a rifle, barrel pointing toward the floor. Tom froze. He’s reloading. Have to end this before he takes one of us out. Tom raised his Glock, holding it steady, the barrel aimed at Weston’s head. He detected a faint sour smell and realized it was his own body perspiration. Sweat trickled down his forehead into his eyes and he quickly blinked it away. The proper thing to do was to ID himself, but if he spoke suddenly and startled Weston, he would probably end up like Sam. Holding the gun steady, he swallowed hard and was about to squeeze the trigger when the hardwood floor underneath him creaked and Weston swung around, fire in his eyes, the rifle aimed at Tom.
“Drop it,” Tom said as the front door was kicked open hard and Grant rushed in, his gun aimed at Weston, who was caught off guard and whirled back around toward him with the rifle. Grant saw his finger tighten on the trigger and fired twice. Weston was struck in the chest and lifted backwards off his feet, his head slamming hard on the floor. He moaned softly and closed his eyes. Two small red spots appeared on his white shirt, seeping through the fabric and expanding to the size of a fist. The loud echo of gunfire reverberated off the walls, and the room was filled with clouds of bluish smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder. Tom stood motionless, still holding his gun, his ears ringing from the noise. Grant kneeled down and placed two fingers on Weston’s neck. After a moment he shook his head.
“He won’t need an ambulance,” he said quietly.
Tom holstered the Glock and glanced around the room at the bags of luggage. “Looks like he was about to go on a little trip. Wonder where Stella is?”
“Right here,” a small voice said behind him. Tom whirled around and there she was, smiling demurely, standing about halfway up the stairs. This time she was wearing makeup, which made her appear ten years younger than her fifty some-odd years. She wore a navy blue pantsuit and matching shoes. She was also holding a gun.
“Stella,” Tom said. Are you okay?”
“Mrs. McNair, you need to give us that gun,” Grant said in a voice that sounded like a teacher scolding a third-grader. Stella looked at Grant, then back at Tom.
“Hello, Tom” she said.
“Stella, what’s going on here?”
“Is-is Paul dead?”
“We had to shoot him, Stella. Yes, he’s dead. Are you okay?”
“He-he was going to take me with him…to Bermuda.”
“Come on, Stella. We’ll take you down to the station with us.”
“I don’t want to go with you Tom.”
“We need to get your statement, Mrs. McNair,” Grant said. She either didn’t hear or chose to ignore him.
Tom took his two-way radio off his hip and spoke softly into it, his eyes never leaving Stella. “Base, this is Fairhope One. We have a ten eighty-nine and a possible ten thirty-two out at 373 Magnolia Drive.” He touched his cheek, glancing at the fresh blood on his fingertips. His face stung from the tiny bits of imbedded glass.
“10-4, Fairhope One, do you need a 10-52?” the dispatcher said.
“Negative. Ten-zero,” he said, meaning to use caution.
“10-4, Chief, will send out units.” He replaced the radio on his hip and glanced at Grant, who was watching Stella as well.
"Stella, I need you to give me that gun,” Tom said, taking one step toward her. Her attention had been on Grant, but she now turned back to face Tom.
“Do you know what it’s like to live with someone who won’t talk to you, won’t spend time with you, won’t acknowledge that you even exist?” Her manner was no longer the bewildered grieving widow. Now her voice had an odd, flinty tone and her eyes were as cold and gray as a November sky. She took one step down the stairs. Tom gently and slowly placed his palm on the butt of his Glock. “I was lucky to get a handshake from Sam. Do you know what that’s like, Tom? He was always going fishing, always driving that stupid cab.” She sniffed and her eyes begin to water. “And then I met Paul. Good-looking. Sweet. Owned his own business. Said we’d go to Bermuda and live on the beach, drink pina coladas all day and play golf..”
“I’m sorry, Stella. Come on down to the station and we’ll talk about it there.”
“Don’t play games with me, Tom. I’m not going anywhere except Bermuda.”
“You can’t go right now, Stella. You know that.
“You can’t stop me, Tom!” she said, her voice getting a little louder. His hand gripped the handle of the Glock.
“I can’t let you leave here, Stel. I need to get some answers first-“
“No, Tom. You and the FBI man are going to back off, you’re going to leave my house and I am getting on that plane and I’m going away.”
“I can’t let you leave, Stella."
"Then I’ll have to shoot you both.”
Tom glanced at Grant. The FBI agent had a look in his eyes that the chief had seen before, a look that a man gets when his back is against the wall and he has to make a decision. “You don’t want to do that, Mrs. McNair,” Grant said, his hand slowly reaching inside his jacket.
Stella raised the gun up an inch or two and fire belched out of the barrel. The report was deafening and she stumbled from the recoil, grabbing the handrail to steady herself. Grant yelled and clutched his shoulder as he went down. Tom fired the Glock once, hitting Stella in the thigh. She staggered, screamed in pain, or maybe it was anger, and fired again, but Tom was already moving, diving headfirst over the sofa, landing hard on his hands and knees. As he leaped, he heard the bullet strike the wall behind where he had been standing. He rolled to a stop and aimed again, firing a second round. The bullet struck her in the upper chest and she staggered once and fell forward onto the railing, then rolled over and slid off, landing on her back on the stairs. Tom raised his head and called out “You okay, G-Man?”
There was no answer. Then Tom heard a wheezing sound and Grant said in a raspy voice, “Still breathing.”
“Alright, sit tight and I’ll be right there.” He heard the faint wail of police and emergency sirens down the road.
“I’m alright, Cochise, just check on the Dragon Lady over there.”
Tom nodded to himself and slowly got to his feet. He could see Stella lying across the stairs, one arm near the banister, the other thrown above her head, still holding the gun. He leaned down, took the gun from her hand, and tossed it on the floor away from them. Her eyes were open, almost at half-mast, and blood covered the front of her pantsuit and on the leg. She looked up at him, her eyes almost closed, lips moving but no words coming out. Tom leaned down closer, smelling her perfume and shampoo, and the sulphury smell of gunpowder. He fought the lump deep down, trying not to think about what was happening. He leaned closer, his ear now inches above her mouth.
“D-dying,” she said, barely above a whisper. He nodded.
“Anything I can do for you, Stel?”
She shook her head slowly, a smile creeping onto her lips.
“Going…to Bermuda,” she said.
The blonde man leaned back in the front seat of the cruiser and watched the ocean out the window. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the dull throbbing ache in his shoulder. He could smell the ocean through the open window and his mind conjured up random images of seagulls, Beach Boys music, surfing, and bonfires at night. The driver looked over at him and arched one eyebrow. His left cheek bore a deep cut, accentuated by a crust of dried blood a few shades redder than his skin.
“You all right, kemo sabe?” Tom said.
“I will be. Soon as they get this chunk of metal out of my shoulder.”
“We’ll have you there in ten minutes.” Then in a corny Texas twang he added, “ You jus’ sit tight, pardner.”
“You knew it wasn’t the serial killer,” Grant said.
Tom shrugged. “I had an idea it wasn’t.”
“How? What made you think we were on the wrong trail?” Grant said, grimacing with a sudden surge of pain in his shoulder.
“Let’s just say a Great Spirit spoke to me in a dream and leave it at that.”
“Alright, you win. I won’t ask anymore.” Grant sat silently for a few minutes. The only sound was the hum of the car’s engine, seagulls growing fainter in the distance, and an occasional transmission on the police radio. Then he said, “Sam was a standup guy, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, he was,” Tom said. “He’d been a good cop. I don’t know where it all went wrong. Still don’t know why he was up to his ears with Uncle Sam, but he was trying to take care of it. Guess she got tired of him being gone all the time. Weston came along, showed her a little attention. Hey, she’s an attractive woman. She loved Sam but…maybe in her case it wasn’t enough.”
“So who decided to kill Sam?”
“Don’t know for sure. We may never know. But trying to make it look like your serial killer had to be Weston.”
Grant felt another pain shooting through his upper arm and shut his eyes for a moment. When it had passed, he said, “How do you figure?”
“While the medics were checking you over, I took a quick peek around the house. I found a few newspaper clippings that featured your boy, his victims, weapon used, that kind of thing. That’s how Weston knew all about him. I also found a Beretta nine millimeter stashed away in a closet. A steak dinner says Weston’s prints are on that gun, and it’s registered to him.”
“That’s a safe bet,” Grant said. “You think he was really going to leave his bar business behind and take her to Bermuda?”
“A pretty woman will make a guy do a lot of stupid things, Agent Grant.” He turned the wheel and guided the car into the parking lot of the Fairhope General Hospital.
“I never did anything stupid because of a woman.”
“Never? Nothing stupid that you still regret to this day?”
Tom let out a short laugh. “You need to get out more.”