Chapter One, Hurricane House
My heart hammered a warning when I opened the door to leave the beach house. It felt like an anxiety attack, cause uncertain. I realize now the warning was a premonition of death, but you know what they say about hindsight.
I took deep breaths of the warm, salty air and tried to relax, then slammed the door. And checked to make sure it was locked. The face on the full moon reminded me of the last time Adam and I watched the fireworks here. In our ten years together, we never missed the fireworks on Paradise Isle. We’d drive down from Gerry, Alabama. Turn off our cell phones and enjoy a few precious days without interruptions.
After Adam was killed in the line of duty, my body ached with grief, and I didn’t have the stamina to confront my memories in the most romantic place on earth. To escape, I buried myself in work. Luckily, my assignments as a catastrophe investigator sent me far away from Paradise Isle, Florida.
This year I took the advice of my sister, who happens to be a psychiatrist. “Make peace with the past,” Kari Ann advised. “Focus on the good stuff and try to be positive, like when you were little Miss Sunshine, singing ‘open up your heart and let the sunshine in.’”
“Oh please, I was a kid when I sang that.” I told her.
“I know. I’m just saying you need to nurture the little girl inside, and with time, you’ll get through this grieving process, Maeva. But for now, try to live in the moment. Be thankful, not negative.”
I wanted to follow my sister’s advice. I really did, but while looking at that moon, bathing the beach in a silver halo, reality hit me. I was alone, drowning in the past, with too many raw memories like the first time Adam and I made love.
My family and I have vacationed on Paradise Isle in Dolphin, Florida since I was knee high. Mom used to say, “No need to lock the doors. Paradise Isle is the safest place on earth.”
In aerial photographs, Paradise Isle looks like a white thumb, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Dolphin Harbor and the boat pass. “The luckiest fishing village in the world,” according to the Chamber of Commerce sign.
Yet, my heart hammered, as if cautioning me. I glanced all around. Unit Three next door had the lights on. The author Sean Redmond owns that townhouse. I’ve read one of his books, a scary murder mystery.
On the street in front of our townhouses, I saw two teenagers talking and laughing with a man and woman who were probably their parents. They headed up Blue Heron Way toward the boat pass.
For reinforcement, I repeated Kari Ann’s advice: “Live in the moment and be thankful.”
I felt thankful for the afternoon showers, cutting the ninety-degree heat, but not thankful for the swarm of tourists, setting off their own firecrackers. Crowds make me nervous, especially noisy crowds.
I’d never seen this many boats anchored along the shore, honking like mad geese, impatient for the first layers of electric dandelions and long-legged spiders on steroids to explode in the sky. The honking reached a crescendo when the fireworks began.
Rather than watch them, I took off running down the wet, slanted shoreline. The flashes of light and rat-a-tat-tat of the fireworks followed me, orchestrating my run. I hadn’t jogged in months. Soon my toes and calves started cramping. To endure, I gritted my teeth and panted, as if I were giving birth. Maybe the pain in my body will obliterate the pain in my heart.
When I reached my mile marker, I plopped down in one of the wooden loungers, owned by Bobby’s Beach Service and found myself staring at the old Dolphin Mansion, three hundred feet away. Sooty black mold covered the exterior. Beach erosion threatened to topple the seven-foot-tall wall encircling it. Why hasn’t someone restored this landmark? The artist who painted the dolphins, for which the town was named, had lived and died in there.
I saw a light flash from one of the porthole windows. I closed my eyes, then opened them to stare at the building again. The light I thought I’d seen had disappeared, but the eerie feeling stayed with me.
To escape the weirdness, I jumped from the lounge chair and walked out on the cluster of boulders called jetties that protected Dolphin’s boat pass from the Gulf’s relentless attempt to clog it with sand.
During my walk, waves crashed against the jetties and my feet slipped a few times. Luckily, I caught myself before I fell.
When I reached the end, I sat on a chair-shaped boulder and dangled my feet in the water. I felt as though I could reach out and touch the fireworks, which were fired from the Dolphin Bridge directly in front of me. I could watch them in the air, see their reflection in the Gulf, and hear the syncopated beat of the music from several boats anchored in the canal.
The waves slapped my back, drenching me, and for the first time in a long while, I began to relax. In fact, I relaxed so completely I let my guard down and didn’t anticipate the giant breaker that slammed dunked me into the gulf. A swift current carried me away.
I gulped a mouthful of salt water as the undertow pulled me down, sucking like a vacuum. At first, I battled the coursing water, making wide circles with my arms and kicking my legs fiercely. Then I remembered what I’d learned in a lifeguard class. Don’t fight the undertow. Let it take you to the bottom. So I commanded my body to relax. `
When my toes touched the floor of the gulf, I began to swim parallel to where I thought the shoreline might be, and search for a weak spot in the undertow. My lungs burned and expanded like a balloon about to pop. My fingers touched something black and slimy. I froze, thinking shark.
In my panic, I collided with a sand bar and crawled crablike on top of it. I took several deep breaths and looked around for someone to help me. By then, my muscles trembled from exhaustion, and I didn’t think I had the strength to swim back to the jetties. The undertow had carried me to the gulf’s side. The boats and the crowd watching the fireworks were at least a football field away on the harbor side. The jetties separated the two and they were at least three hundred feet away.
I waved my hands above my head and yelled, “Help.” I could feel the shifting of the sand bar, soon to wash away.
When no one answered my cry for help, I jumped from the sand bar and swam back toward the jetties. Halfway there, my fatigued muscles demanded rest. So I floated on my back for a while until I bumped into an object in the water.
When I flipped over to see what I’d collided with, I screamed. It was the unthinkable: a woman’s nude body. I gagged and swam doggie-style, backwards and forwards, studying the corpse. I noticed she’d lost one of her feet. Oh my God. Did a shark do this?
A boat, fifty feet away with a boom box blasting I’m Proud to be an American, cruised nearby. I yelled, “Help, help,” as I pulled the body toward the jetties.
I watched the boat, hoping for a response, but it sped past, ignoring me, but sending a wave, tossing me backwards. I lost my grip on the body and imagined the remains of this poor woman getting caught up in the undertow, never to resurface again.
Though exhausted, I swam after the body. When I reached out to grab it, a cruel wave pushed it away. Eventually, the tide changed and I was able to recapture the corpse. This time, I positioned my body on top of the dead woman as if she were a float. Thankfully and finally, the waves seemed to be working in our favor, pushing us toward the jetties.
The corpse and I soon collided with the rocks and I felt like kissing the boulders, though I didn’t think I had the energy to pull myself up and get out of the water. I gripped a gigantic rock, put my feet in between two of them and was finally able to jump up. Then I got on my stomach and tried to reach the corpse, but my arms weren’t long enough to gain leverage. Thankfully, the waves were pushing the body against the boulders, not taking her away.
I unzipped my waist pouch to withdraw my cell phone. The pouch was waterproof, but after my near drowning, I didn’t expect the cell to work.
I punched in 911. A woman answered, “What’s your emergency?”
“I’ve found a…dead body…in the …near the jetties,” I stuttered and shut my eyes, fighting my panic.
You’d think from the way I acted I’d never seen a dead body, but I’ve seen several as a catastrophe insurance investigator, or CAT, as we are called. I’ve dealt with victims of floods, tornadoes, hurricanes.
“Calm down,” the 911 lady said. “What’s your name and location?”
My voice quivered, “My name is Maeva Larson. I’m in Dolphin on Paradise Isle at the end of the jetties, near where they’re exploding the fireworks. I’m wearing white shorts and a white top. I’m five-one, have short red hair, and I’m the only one out here on the jetties.”
“You said you found a body?”
“Yes, a woman.”
“And she’s dead?” the operator asked.
“Yes, dead,” I snapped, trying to keep my voice steady.
“I’ll stay on the phone with you,” the operator said, her voice low and soothing.
“No, no, don’t, I’m okay,” I said, though I felt anything but. “I just need someone out here now. Hurry, please.”
After I closed my cell phone, I studied the dead woman. Her gold necklace glinted in the moonlight. The necklace had a pendant in the shape of a crown and looked familiar. Too familiar, like the one Tara Baxter had worn the afternoon Geneva VanSant invited me over for wine and finger sandwiches.
Tara had won the Miss Florida contest, and Geneva had received an award for an article about a female hitchhiker. The party was to celebrate both events.
After the get-acquainted hellos, I noticed the crown necklace, “Lovely. Appropriate for your title as Miss Florida.” I remember lifting my glass of red wine to Tara in a toast. “Here’s hoping you become the next Miss America.”
“From your lips to God’s ear,” Tara had said and sipped her drink.
“Is that necklace something the winner gets?”
Tara chuckled and said. “No, Maeva, my mother had it designed for me.”
I didn’t want to believe this dead body was Tara, but I saw no other alternative. On her right hand was a heart-shaped pinky ring. I was certain Tara had worn a similar ring.
What was taking the responders so long? I wondered. The fireworks had ended. The crowd on the beach was moving on. The waves kept crashing the jetties, smacking Tara’s body into the rocks. As I watched her, I began to sob like a frightened child. Never had I felt so alone and powerless.