Gone 'Til November
For Jack S. Smith and Jack D. Hunter
Flagler College 1981-82
For reasons too numerous to mention, my thanks to friends new and old for their encouragement and support, especially Mark Voglesong, John Tinseth, James O. Born, Matt Seitz, and Brian and Donna Washburn. And, as always, to my mother, Inez Stroby, a single mom late in life who somehow made it all work. Much love and respect to all.
Sara steered the cruiser onto the shoulder, saw what was ahead, thought, Bad news.
Gravel crunched under the tires as the Crown Vic settled at an angle. The radio crackled.
“Eight-seventeen, are you on scene?” Angie, the night dispatcher. “Have you responded?”
Sara lifted the dash mike, keyed it. “Eight-seventeen here. On scene now. Will advise.”
In the blaze of her headlights, Billy stood behind his own green-and-white cruiser, looking off into the swamp, hands on his hips. Farther up on the shoulder was a gray late-model Honda Accord, trunk open. Blue, red, and yellow lights bathed the night.
She replaced the mike, tried to memorize the scene, wishing the grants had come through for the dashboard video cameras. She looked at her watch. Two ten.
Billy turned toward her, face blank. She could see his jaws moving. He was chewing gum. After a moment, he looked back at the swamp.
She hadn’t seen him at the Sheriff’s Office, but she’d known he was on duty tonight, had heard him on the scanner. Part of her had hoped they’d cross paths before shift’s end, part of her didn’t. When she’d gotten the call, shots fired, she’d feared the worst. Now here he was, staring out into the swamp, looking lost.
What have you done, Billy Boy? And why did you have to do it on my shift?
She opened the door, took her portable radio from the passenger seat, and stepped out onto gravel. She fit the radio into its holder on her duty belt and plugged in the body mike clipped to her left shoulder. Her thumb slipped the holster loop that held the Glock in place on her right hip.
The air was thick, the heat oppressive after the air-conditioned cruiser. Hot for mid-October. No moon, but a sky full of stars.
The Honda had New Jersey plates. Billy had parked behind it, angled to the left, in the standard motor vehicle stop position, so the cruiser would protect him from oncoming traffic when he got out.
He half-turned. “Hey, Sara.”
“Hey, Billy. You all right?”
He looked away from her, back at the swamp.
She had her hair tied up in back, could feel sweat form at the nape of her neck, drip beneath the Kevlar vest under her uniform shirt. She came up to stand beside him, followed his gaze. They were looking down a slight incline to the edge of the swamp. There was a patch of sodden grass, then a deeper dark where the trees started, Spanish moss hanging from them like cotton. In the grass, just short of the trees, a man lay facedown, right leg twisted under left, right arm extended.
“There he is,” Billy said.
She looked around. She’d seen no traffic since she’d gotten the call, taken the turnoff for CR-23. Only locals used this route, few at night. To the east, acres and acres of sugarcane, then the distant glow of town. To the west, the gray ghosts of cypress trees, endless miles of wetlands stretching to Punta Gorda and the coast. She could smell the swamp, the rotten egg scent of sulfur.
The cruiser radios crackled in unison, the sound muffled by the closed doors. Off in the dark, as if in answer, bullfrogs sounded. Then another, deeper noise, the low bellowing of a gator. The light from their rollers painted the trees, the swamp, illuminated the body below.
“Is he dead?” she said.
He nodded. “Or close to it. He hasn’t moved at all. EMTs on their way.”
She took the heavy aluminum flashlight from the ring on her belt and pushed the button. The bright halogen beam leaped out into darkness. She swept it across the man’s back. His head was turned to the right, and even from here she could see his eyes were open.
Chinos, blue dress shirt, a deep, dark stain between the shoulder blades, shirt soaked with blood. A black man, young, dressed too well to be from around here.
“I’m going to have a look,” she said.
“Careful. You step into a chuckhole down there, you’ll break your ankle.”
She shifted the light to her left hand, took a step down the incline, her right hand resting on the Glock. She could hear sirens in the distance.
She picked her way down the slope. When she reached the grass, she felt it give spongily under her shoes, water coming up around them.
She shone the light along the wet ground, looking for snakes. Something moved and splashed in the darkness. The noise of the bullfrogs stopped for a moment, then started again.
The gun was about a foot from the man’s right hand. She held the light on it. A blued revolver,.38 maybe, rubber grips. She made a grid with the flashlight beam, looking for another weapon, footprints. Nothing.
“Anyone else in the car?” she called up. The sirens closer now.
“No. Just him. I told him to stop. I told him.”
She crouched, not letting her knees touch the ground. Up close, she could see the gold wire-rim glasses twisted beneath his face, one side still looped over his ear. He looked like a teenager, hair close-cropped, a small gold ring in his right earlobe. His eyes were wide.
She played the beam down the body. Left arm folded beneath, right outstretched as if pointing to the gun. The shoes were tan leather, polished, the upturned soles shiny and new. No way he could have run on this grass, gotten away.
She touched the side of his neck. A faint warmth, but no pulse.
From above her, Billy said, “He dead?”
“Yes. He’s dead.”
Something moved in the trees, and her hand fell to the Glock. A shadow separated itself from the blackness, took wing silently. She looked up, watched it fly away, etched for an instant against the stars, wondered what it was.
She went back up the incline, careful where she put her feet. When she reached the gravel, Billy was standing beside the Honda’s open trunk.
“Check out this shit,” he said.
She went over and shone the light inside. The trunk was empty except for a nylon gearbag, partially unzipped. She saw the glint of metal within.
“You look in there?” she said.
“Yeah. He was acting nervous, so I asked him to open the trunk. When I saw the bag inside, he took off. I told him to stop. When he got down there, he rounded on me, drew down.”
His voice was unsteady. She looked at him, saw his eyes were wet.
Sirens rose and fell in the distance.
“Cold out here,” he said. “When did it get so cold?”
He paused between words, chest rising and falling rapidly, as if he were hyperventilating. The onset of shock.
“You should sit in the car,” she said. She tucked the flashlight under her arm, took the thin Kevlar gloves from her belt and pulled them on, punching the Vs of her fingers together to get the fit tight.
“I’m all right,” he said.
“You don’t look it.”
She shone the flashlight into the bag, reached down and pulled the zippered edges apart. Inside was a boxy MAC-10 machine gun with a pistol grip and a dull black finish. Under it were two semiautomatic handguns: a chrome Smith and Wesson with rubber grips, a blue-steel Heckler and Koch, both 9 mm. Boxes of ammunition, extra magazines for the MAC-10. No wonder he ran.
She heard a noise, turned to see Billy bent over on the shoulder, hands on his knees. He spit his gum out, gagged, vomited thin and watery onto the gravel.