A Taste of... Shadow's Watch
Skipper sat on the deck of his boat and stared out at the vast and ever-changing blues of the tranquil sea and cloudless sky. On a typical morning, this would have been precisely what he’d need to calm his mind. To sit and take in the beautiful day.
Today, though, his mind was anything but calm.
Today is when I die.
A storm was raging around him, and it had nothing to do with the weather or even the sea. There had been no sign, no radar signal, no change in pressure to warn him. It was almost funny. People talked about how tempestuous the sea was or how dangerous the creatures swimming below its surface could be. But Skipper knew humans and their unpredictably explosive natures were the deadliest forces of all.
Especially the human onboard his boat right then.
Jerking against the braided nylon binding his wrists behind him, Skipper mentally cursed when the rope didn’t give. Red, his buddy, was tied to his back in a similar manner, while a crazed man cycloned up and down the deck. Trying again, he twisted his wrists to work a bit of slack, but the effort caused the woven cord to bite into his flesh.
It was painful, but he knew it was possible to stretch the rope slightly if he kept working to unwind the intertwined threads. He stopped when his fingers brushed against something thick and wet with a hard center—a rib?—and the man at his back screamed.
He wanted to tell Red to keep quiet but he knew his cry had been involuntary.
Skipper lowered his voice and twisted his head to be close to his friend’s ear. “I’m trying to work my hands loose. I’m sorry if I’m hurting you. Please hang in there.”
There was no answer except for pained sobbing. Skipper’s heart broke for him.
Dammit! Even if it hurts, it’s better than what will happen if I don’t get us free.
In more than sixty years of life, Skipper had never been in a situation this bad. He was sitting in a puddle of blood and saltwater in the middle of a tarp spread out underneath them. Most of the blood wasn’t his, which somehow made it much worse. The sticky tackiness drying on his pants as the warming sun climbed in the sky made him squirm on the plastic sheet, making a squishing sound with every movement.
He’d been able to stand from a cross-legged seated position in his youth, but there was no way he could manage that now with his bad knees. It didn’t matter anyway, since he would never manage to get to his feet in the right position with his buddy lashed to his back. Of course, if he were still in his prime, he wouldn’t have been jumped so easily, and maybe they could have fought off their attacker instead of being knocked down by the first, unexpected blow.
The pirate, as good a name as any for a madman who hijacked his boat, had taught him what attempted escape would result in. Several quick, hard blows had put an end to that. Skipper licked his split lip and spat the blood out.
Here he was in the middle of nowhere. He hadn’t been allowed to consult any of his charts, but he reckoned they were in international waters. They weren’t even near a shipping lane. Skipper would need to find his own way out of this predicament.
Their pirate was still pacing from bow to stern, passing them as he ranted and raved, using mostly obscenities. It might have even been funny, if not for the murderous look and his casual use of violence.
“How could you be so stupid? All you had to do was follow instructions and keep your mouth shut.” The pirate punched Red. Again.
Skipper lurched forward with his head snapping down before he registered Red’s grunt. Every blow jarred through Skipper’s back.
“Why would you do something so idiotic? What were you thinking?”
“C’mon, man, leave off. He told you already!” There wasn’t much Skipper could do to stop the intruder, but he couldn’t just sit there and let his buddy get pummeled to death.
“I told you. I…I didn’t have a choice.” Red’s response was weak and desperate. “He needed to know about you being—”
Skipper felt Red stiffen before another blow rocked them both.
The pirate stomped off again. “Of course you had a choice! You told my secret. You stole from me. Who forced you to do either?”
The headache came almost instantly with a dull throbbing pain behind Skipper’s ear. He continued to wiggle his wrists while the pirate was distracted.
Red found a bit of strength. “I had to think of my family! Of myself! I couldn’t just—”
The pirate’s feet pounded across the deck, and a loud slap cut off Red’s words. Again, both men rocked.
“You should have been thinking about what I’d do when I found out you were lying and stealing, you little piece of shit.”
“Please, please! I can fix this. I can.”
The pirate loomed over them. “How?”
Skipper prayed his friend had a way to get them both out of this.
He hadn’t done anything wrong. His predicament could be chalked up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was easy to accept that when it came to storms or choppy seas, but that was something Skipper could navigate through. Now he was stuck, depending on someone else to keep him alive.
Before Red could respond, a terrible thunk of metal meeting flesh lurched Skipper forward. Skipper prayed with more force than he ever had. But as a fresh gush of warm blood flowed under him, he knew something irrevocable had just happened.
With one final, guttural cry, Red pitched forward, his deadweight dragging Skipper backward and arching his back, leaving him more exposed to what might come next.
Holy Mary…er, God…Savior. Filled with despair, Skipper tried to remember the prayers from his youth but couldn’t. Pray for this sinner. Or me. Dammit, I know I’m not supposed to swear in a prayer. Please, just get me out of this alive, and I promise I’ll be a better man.
He knew if he survived this, he would have nightmares for the rest of his life. Nightmares he would welcome over the alternative. He wanted to scream, but he felt a vibration on his back. Groaning? Was Red still alive? He went silent and focused.
After several moments, he lowered himself back onto his rear before daring to peek over his shoulder toward the pirate.
The shadow of the man cast over them. Something long was in his hand—the gaff!
By the time the massive hook registered in Skipper’s mind, the business end was already swinging downward. With a reflexive surge of adrenaline, he snapped his head down to duck out of the way, using his friend as an unintended shield.
There was a sickening crunch. Red’s body swayed but didn’t jerk as the second and third blows fell.
A scream rose in Skipper’s throat when he realized his friend was dead for sure. What did this mean for him now?
He clamped his fingers on the severed stubs where Red’s fingers had once been, hoping he was wrong. There was no reaction. He squeezed again, hoping for a scream, a jerk, a cry, anything to indicate he was still breathing.
Skipper could barely hear the mumbled words of the pirate, who’d resumed pacing. “I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want any of this. Why did he have to be such a dumbass?”
There was no one left to help Skipper. No one else was on the boat. Just him and the murderer.
Trying to think of anything he could say to get himself out of this situation, Skipper looked around. He knew this boat like the back of his hand, having spent a third of his life on the deck. There was nothing nearby he could use, even if he could have reached for it. He always kept a clean deck. Everything was tucked away so no one would trip and accidentally hurt themselves. How ironic that his own safety precautions might now contribute to his demise.
The stretch of placid ocean mocked him and reminded him that screaming for help would be fruitless and even embarrassing. Out in the middle of the sea, there really was nothing. No law, no help, no hope, no—
That gave him an idea.
“You don’t have to do anything else.”
The pacing stopped. “What did you say?”
Skipper lifted his eyes, the shadow frozen in place over his shoulder. The man was huge and ripped for someone his age.
“You killed him because of what he did. That’s all done now. No one saw what happened out here. I’m sure as hell not going to tell anyone. There are no records. No one saw us leave port. Your mission is complete.” He gulped, praying he sounded convincing.
When there was no response, he pressed on. “Red did you wrong. He screwed up. He paid for it. A simple matter of making things right. You could even call it justice. Now it’s all said and done, and we can go back to our lives. Things happen at sea all the time, and no one can do anything about it.”
He kept his eyes on the ominous shadow, praying he’d gotten through.
“Go back?” The shadow shook his head. “There’s no going back.”
“Of course we can. You’ve got all the power out here. You make the decisions. If you decide that enough is enough, we can just…go. But you’ll need someone to captain the ship to get you back.”
“All the power?” He laughed, and it was a terrible noise.
Skipper heard death in that laugh as surely as he could feel it resting against his back. “Yes.”
“This wasn’t about power. This was about trust.” There was a slithering sound that Skipper knew all too well. The tarp was being folded. “And, unlike you two, I’m not going to end up as fish food.”
The man flipped the tarp over them, blinding Skipper to his surroundings. The light turned blue around him as he tried to twist free while kicking at the tarp.
The world grew bluer as another layer of tarp was thrown over him and his dead friend. With all the plastic bound up over his head, his buddy’s blood pooled around him more thickly.
Skipper’s stomach turned, and he prayed he wouldn’t throw up on top of everything else.
Seems like the least of your worries, ya ole fool.
“And don’t worry. I know how to work a boat.”
“You don’t have to do this!” Skipper screamed, twisting his face away from his trappings, trying to find fresh air. He sucked metallic, blood-tinged breaths into his lungs, and bile rose in his throat. The pirate worked fast, wrapping them up like a burrito, with the ends folded over the top.
The distinctive screech of duct tape being torn from its roll penetrated Skipper’s tomb only seconds before he felt it being secured to the tarp around him.
Dread crawled up his skin while sweat trickled down his face and neck. As the tape grew tighter, the air turned hot and thick, making him thrash against his fate.
“As soon as he fucked up, this was the only way today was going to play out.” The pirate’s hands worked fast and sure with the duct tape, securing the two men in the blue shroud.
Skipper knew he was going to be buried alive at sea. The one place that had always provided him solace.
Forever one with the vast expanse.
“No! You don’t have to do this. I can help you fix whatever he fucked up. I promise!” He tried thrashing against the tarp, but his tomb was secured. Maybe his fate had been sealed hours ago, and he was just catching on. “Please, don’t do this.” He whimpered as his hands worked feverishly to break free.
The man grunted, and Skipper froze, trying to make out every muted sound. As if listening would help him stop what was coming.
“For the love of God, man! At least kill me first. Knock me out. Don’t do it this way. I never wronged you.” Flailing with his feet, he couldn’t kick free of the blood-drenched tarp.
Skipper’s mind raced as his sarcophagus was dragged closer to the boat’s edge. The pirate seemed to possess the strength of two men.
When the gate squeaked open, Skipper’s bladder released. He tried talking faster, as if he could race to get out the right set of words to chart a new course.
It was too late to beg for his life. He understood that all too well. All he could hope for now was a quick death. “Just bash my head in. The gaff is right there! You can—”
The deck disappeared beneath him, and he began to fall.
Another hit of adrenaline surged through Skipper as warm saltwater seeped through the folded edges of the plastic sheath, giving him the power to thrash even harder. Nothing gave. The tiny amount of slack he’d managed to make wasn’t enough to get him out of this.
The bloody plastic pressed into his face, covering his mouth and nose as he panted in panic. The pressure of the ocean squeezed him tighter. A terrible ringing started in his ears, followed by a burst of dizzying pain.
Conserve your breath.
Water seeped onto his face, and he squeezed his eyes tighter. He knew he should blow out all his air. Empty his lungs and breathe in the saltwater for a quick end. It would be over faster if he stopped fighting the inevitable. But he just couldn’t do it. The animalistic part of his brain overrode everything and made him keep fighting to stay alive.
Maybe the duct tape will hold long enough until I can work one hand free. There’s still some air—
As if all of Skipper’s sins came to bear, the duct tape tore away from one corner, and seawater rushed into his tomb. It filled his mouth, his ears, his eyes.
And as his lungs burned, desperate for air, Skipper’s hope disappeared with the light as darkness enveloped him.
Looking through the windshield at the tattered beach, Sheriff Rebecca West took a moment for herself. The island had just weathered a major hurricane less than twenty-four hours ago, and she’d only just returned home after sheltering at the health center.
She was supposed to have the day off. In some parallel universe, where a hurricane hadn’t rocked the island and dead bodies weren’t surfacing at random, she’d imagined spending it with Ryker Sawyer. There was definitely more than friendship between them, but timing never seemed to quite work to their advantage. Instead of enjoying Ryker’s company, she’d been called out to a crime scene, and it was barely nine a.m.
The level of destruction that Hurricane Boris had caused was heart-wrenching. Although, driving into town, she realized that despite the amplitude of residue from the ocean left everywhere, it was so much worse at the edge of the sea.
In the hours since the hurricane had made landfall, the barometric pressure had returned almost to normal, and the unfortunate but common high humidity of summer had blanketed the island. Heat baked and boiled everything that had washed up on the shore. Navigating around the displaced driftwood and broken pieces of homes and boats was bad enough. But now, rotting fish, seaweed, and jellyfish permeated the air with the pungent sting of death. And of course, there were two semisolid corpses decaying on the sand.
This was going to be a nightmare of a crime scene.
Senior Deputy Hoyt Frost had set up a perimeter around a slimy-looking lump of clothes, flotsam, and jetsam. She hoped that small pile wasn’t supposed to be the two adult men she’d gotten the call about.
Her deputy was outside the taped-off area, talking with a man who was shifting from foot to foot while keeping his gaze focused squarely on the deputy’s face.
As Rebecca got out of the cruiser, Hoyt glanced over. She tipped her chin up, signaling him to come to join her. If that nervous man with Hoyt was their only witness, she didn’t want to go over the grisly details in his presence.
The kindhearted staff at the Shadow Island Community Health Center had cleaned her whole outfit, right down to polishing her badge and shining her shoes. She didn’t want to get puke from the witness all over her toes if she could help it. And he looked close to losing his eggs and bacon.
Hoyt nodded his understanding and said something to the man before strolling over. The witness turned his back on the scene and stared at the ocean, taking breaths deep enough that Rebecca could see his shoulders move up and down.
They met at the edge of the crime scene. “What’s up, Boss?”
After hauling sandbags and wrestling with a ladder in hurricane-force winds, Hoyt had been babying his recent surgery scar. She was worried he’d overdone things after just getting released to full duty.
“Darian can take over for you.” She kept her voice low so no one else could hear them. “I’d like you to go see your doctor to make sure you didn’t pull anything yesterday.”
“No can do. Darian doesn’t do beach scenes. And he’s got other things to deal with.” Hoyt shook his head but wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Clearly, he was hiding something, but he didn’t seem to be in any pain or move with difficulty. Even after driving stakes into the sand for the current crime scene, which he had to have done, he was standing up straight, so it couldn’t be his physical health. She’d been keeping an eye on his condition since he’d come back from medical leave, so this had to be about Darian.
“How can he not do beach scenes? We’re a beach town.”
“Plenty of places in town that aren’t sandy. One of us covers for him. Never been a problem before, isn’t a problem now.”
Hoyt held up a hand. “Besides, I already called my doc and got cleared to work. He didn’t even need to see me. He said I’m fine, and it’s expected after what we went through. Said to just lay off the heavy lifting for a bit and treat it like a sore muscle, because that’s all it is.”
She frowned, wondering whether to believe him. “You sure?”
Instead of answering, he gestured at her bandaged hands. “Thankfully, you’re here and can take over the heavy stuff. That is, if you’ve been cleared by your doc.”
She realized he was trying to move the discussion away from Darian’s reluctance to work a beach scene. She sighed, knowing he had to have a good reason. And Darian would too. He wasn’t one to shirk his duties.
“Did that a few hours ago.” The wounds on her hands itched like crazy but no longer hurt much. She’d gotten them during a successful rescue operation, so every ounce of pain had been worth it. “The bandages are just to keep debris out of the wounds so they can heal faster.”
Hoyt seemed dubious but didn’t argue. “If you say so.”
“I do.” She nodded toward the bodies, ready to get to the subject at hand. “Catch me up with what we’ve got here.”
Hoyt rolled his shoulder and headed back in the direction of the witness, who was now diligently inspecting the stack of fishing gear piled at his feet. Rebecca walked alongside him.
“Two bodies washed ashore with the storm surge from Boris. They’re higher than where high tide would have left them. That distinctive ridge from the tide was pretty much wiped out with the hurricane, so you’ll need to just trust me on this.”
Rebecca examined the area he indicated. “Any idea how long they’ve been here?”
“If they came with the surge, well, let’s see.” Hoyt scrunched his brow as he performed mental calculations. “I think it’s safe to say they coulda been out here for twenty-four hours. There’s not much left of their clothes, but the remaining scraps are fairly baked on. About the only good news is that they’re far enough away from the incoming high tide that they won’t be touched by the waves. I’d call this a body dump.”
Rebecca snorted. “Dumped by the ocean instead of by a human. That’s a first for me.”
Hoyt chuckled softly, but then turned somber as they reached their witness. He made the introductions and jumped right into his questions. “Matt, can you tell the sheriff what you told me?”
Matt Brewster looked up from under the brim of his straw hat and nodded, fiddling with the reel on his pole. There was nothing suspicious about his movements, just the nervous reaction of a man who’d seen something he wished he hadn’t. A something that would haunt him the rest of his life.
“I came out to get some fishing in. After storms is the best time to catch the big fish. Then I saw that pile over there and,” he swallowed thickly, “came over to see if it was storm debris, maybe someone’s patio umbrella or something. Instead…poor bastards.”
“What happened next?” Rebecca prompted.
“I called 911 as soon as I realized what it was. I also made sure I didn’t get close to it. Didn’t want to either. You can see where my tracks end. My tracks were the only ones on the beach when I got here too. I checked.”
He pointed without looking, and Rebecca glanced over her shoulder. Just as Matt Brewster had said, one set of tracks stopped at least ten yards from the bodies. Another set was closer and circled the victims. Those were clearly Hoyt’s as he left the beach, returned, and set up the crime scene tape.
“Second set of tracks is mine.” Hoyt pulled the camera out of his pocket. “Made sure I took plenty of pictures before I got that close.”
Rebecca didn’t need her senior deputy’s reassurances. She’d seen him at enough crime scenes to know he did his job correctly each time.
She glanced at the notepad Hoyt had used to jot down the initial information. It contained Matt Brewster’s contact information, as well as his answers to the preliminary questions the deputy had asked. He’d covered everything.
She’d seen enough of the bodies from this distance to know there was no reason to ask if he recognized them. There weren’t any faces left. And most likely, there weren’t any brains either. Even from her current position, she’d seen the inside of at least one of the skulls. A few bits of skin remained, and she hoped the medical examiner would be able to get DNA for identifying the bodies.
“Thank you, sir. Since Deputy Frost has your contact information, you can go ahead and leave.”
Brewster tipped his head. “I think I’ll see how the fish are biting on the western side. I don’t want to catch anything that might have bits of them in their bellies.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he turned green. Nearly the same shade as the bloated corpses.
“Or maybe not try to catch any fish today. Just in case,” Rebecca suggested.
Hoyt patted Brewster on the shoulder. “Maybe you should take a few minutes before you try anything.”
Brewster nodded, gathered up his gear, and made his wobbly way down the beach away from the scene and the sickening smell.
Rebecca turned toward the mess that had once been humans. “Have you called forensics?”
Hoyt nodded. “Forensics and the M.E. are on their way. They should be here shortly. All the main roads are cleared, and the bridge didn’t sustain any damage. We got lucky.”
They sure had. Boris could have been much, much worse.
Rebecca glanced around the area and put her hands on her hips. “I don’t suppose we have any more excuses to put off inspecting the bodies.”
“Just make sure not to touch them.” He gave her a haunted look and kicked his boots in the sand. “Bodies like these tend to pop.”
“Yeah, and that possibility only gets more likely the longer they stay out here warming up.” She looked up at the sun, which was still climbing in the sky. “Let’s grab some mentholated ointment from my bag to slather under our noses. Once our sense of smell is masked, we can operate more efficiently.”
The last time that trick had been used was so a group of technicians could process the vehicle of a suspect who had heartlessly trapped a puppy in the trunk on a hot day. Even with the salve, some of the techs had lost their lunch. Thank God, the puppy had pulled through.
After retrieving and applying the balm, Rebecca reached into the pouch on the back of her belt and pulled out her latex gloves. She put them on to cover her bandages, then pulled on a second pair to cover those.
The circling seagulls indicated she’d been right about the stench hanging thick in the air. She kept an eye on the birds as she ducked under the crime scene tape. The corpses would attract all kinds of scavengers, and she didn’t want to get into a fight over rotting body parts.
The visible skins on the victims were blotchy and turgid, showing splits in several places as the flesh had soaked up more water than it could hold before being deposited on the land. Both corpses were utterly disfigured. And not just the skin. The muscles were sloughing off the bones. Some joints had already come apart in the arms, held somewhat together by scraps of clothing.
One of the vics’ jaw was completely missing. Either from the turbulent current or predation, as fish moved into the mouth to eat out the tongue and throat before heading up into the skull. Soft tissues and small muscles tended to be devoured first because they were easy for the smaller sea life to consume before the bigger predators arrived to eat the large sections of meat.
There was no way they would be able to get any identification on the one without a jaw or teeth except through DNA.
“Crabs have already gotten to them. I’ve had to chase a few off since I’ve been here. Ah, dammit. Get out of there, you nasty bastards.” Hoyt swept his foot at two crabs munching on one of the legs. “This is why I never eat crab.”
“Some Navy guys are the same way. One I knew said he never could be sure one of his fallen comrades wasn’t in their bellies.” Rebecca squatted down to get a better view and batted away another crab.
Both corpses appeared to be male. One was missing all the fingers from both hands. The torsos were split open and showed additional scavenging on their internal organs. Some organ tissues remained, in varying amounts, along with scraps of muscles and tendons.
She turned to face the ocean, wondering how big the fish in this area got. Some of the bites had nicked bone.
Combined with the terror and destruction of the hurricane the day before, the ocean didn’t seem as warm and inviting as it had when Rebecca had first arrived on Shadow Island in the middle of the month.
Has it only been a few weeks? Wow.
Hoyt pushed his hat back on his forehead to wipe away sweat. “There’s no way to tell where these two came from without phoning NOAA to ask them for tracking information after Boris blew through here. There’re just too many factors we don’t know to even hazard a guess as to how long they’ve been dead.”
“What’s the current pattern normally around here?” Rebecca made a mental note to study the sea surrounding her new home.
“The current comes from the north, but this stretch of the ocean is also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Because of the piles of wrecked ships just below the surface.”
Rebecca nodded. “I remember hearing that when I was a kid. Why does that happen?”
“Because the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream meet right around this area, but…” Hoyt shook a finger, “you can’t count on that in this case. Boris came from the southeast and could have pulled them up with everything else. There’s just no telling.”
Rebecca nodded, leaned forward, and carefully lifted a piece of tattered clothing that might have been a flannel shirt. Salt-faded orange underneath caught her eye.
“Someone bound them with rope. There’s blue plastic stuck to it as well.”
Hoyt shook his head. “So I guess this was a body dump, not just poor unfortunates lost at sea.”
She stood to examine the wrecked beach around them. “Twenty-four hours ago, we were shoveling sand into bags trying to hold back the rising water. Then we dropped everything to find out who turned a corpse into the embodiment of a mermaid.”
Hoyt yanked off his gloves and stepped away from the scene. “And about died in the process.”
Rebecca glanced at the corpses resting high on the shore. “Just when I thought Boris had stopped assaulting the island, he leaves us with these two. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this case might just be messier than the last one.”