We Live in the Winkle House
By the year 2048 climate change had reconfigured the west coast of Florida. Trash trees and vines had taken over Sarasota's pocket parks. Jellyfish were harvested on what used to be Bayfront Drive. Alligators lolled in front of the Sarasota Opera House.
Houses everywhere had been abandoned. Because of frequent storms and rising sea levels, natives had moved north, and snowbirds had never returned. Some homes were filled with water or mold. Others were missing roofs or walls. Ownership had become a squishy concept. It was hard to distinguish among a legally-owned house, a foreclosure that had never been enforced, and a squat earned with sweat equity. There were always plenty of unclaimed properties to move into.
Detective Eureka Kilburn was standing in front of the Winkle House, which was still a gem, a marvel, a collection of slim floating horizontal lines reminiscent of the light filtering through Venetian blinds. Affixed to the bottom right of the door like a signature was a little bronze plaque attesting to the house's architectural importance. Eureka figured that's why it was occupied. She couldn't think of any other reason.
You could call it oceanfront property, but only because the house across the street, which used to qualify for the coveted term, had been sliding backward into a gulley for the last decade. The roof had sunk to street level, and the shingles created a curious cobblestone effect. Poles painted caution orange protruded at crazy angles. Eureka could see without obstruction straight across the bay to the ghastly hulks of drowned hotels out on Lido Key.
On the other, inland side of the Winkle House was an abandoned commercial strip with weeds sticking up through the asphalt like handfuls of knives. An evil-looking thicket of melaleuca trees sprouted from a pool of standing water.
The house looked as if it had been trapped in the squeeze between the crumbling coast and the decaying strip like an Alfa Romeo in a car crusher.
"Over here," said a young woman from the shuttered white cube of a garage. Her name was Bliss—Bliss Prasad. She was unnaturally thin.
Inside the garage a raven-haired woman was hanging from a noose fashioned from a rope thrown over a rafter. Det. Kilburn went to the body immediately to check it out. The face was too ravaged to look into without flinching. The flesh was cold, the cheeks covered with the red dots that indicated broken blood vessels.
"This woman has been dead for a while."
"My mother," said Bliss intensely. "Eva Prasad. My father thought she got caught in the storm." The young woman radiated a strong, unclassifiable emotion. Part grief, part anger, it was heightened by something harder to define.
Bliss turned to the tall man leaning steeply as if into a wind behind her. "Julian Prasad," she said. She could have been identifying a type of tree.
"We haven't touched a thing," she continued, looking straight into Det. Kilburn's eyes. "I know how important that is to you."
Det. Kilburn nodded, trying to read the scene.
There was an unmistakable resemblance between the two living Prasads. Both had square faces and short perky noses that sat up like begging dogs. But the skin on Julian's cheeks and chin bulged oddly, and his eyes had sunk deep into his head. He could have been the girl's grandfather.
His first words were wan, almost indifferent. "I don't know why you're here," he said. "Eva always did what she wanted, and this is what she wanted."
"She didn't know what she wanted," said Bliss.
The room itself was pinched-looking. There was no car, of course. Few were left in Sarasota. But the place did not seem to be used for storage, either. The only thing in it other than the body was a coiled hose. A messy film of wet mud on the floor suggested that the place had been stripped bare because of repeated flooding.
"Were there previous attempts?" Det. Kilburn asked.
"Yeah." Julian did not elaborate.
"He stopped her the other times," said Bliss.
"Not hanging, I guess," said Det. Kilburn.
"Pills," said Julian. "But they're hard to get nowadays."
"Aren't you going to investigate?" Bliss demanded.
It did seem that she was doing her very best to get her father put away. Det. Kilburn looked at the young woman for a moment.
"Where is the chair?" Bliss's voice had taken a sharp turn into agony.
"You mean what did your mother stand on?" said Det. Kilburn, eyeing the space under the dangling feet.
Bliss's eyes darted here and there. She was struggling to keep herself from saying anything more.
Det. Kilburn had also noticed that there was no chair kicked away anywhere—no platform of any sort, in fact, that the woman could have used to launch herself into the void. But given the apparent attitudes of the two living Prasads, it seemed just as likely that Bliss had taken away the chair to get her father into trouble than he had engineered his wife's suicide.
Still, Det. Kilburn did not believe that either had happened. Nor did erotic asphyxiation make any sense. People will always be strange, but circumstances had become stranger still. Nothing was what it used to be. Nothing was solid or settled. The landscape was in flux. Infrastructure was collapsing. Everything was unstable, protean, murky.
"Chairs don't just get up and walk away," said Bliss.
"Oh, I don't know," said Det. Kilburn, looking around the garage.
It was useless as storage area. It held no car or generator or even tools. It seemed a mix of inside and outside, interior and exterior. A hose could belong to either or both. You could even see light through the cracks in the walls. She looked again at the mud. Although most of it was too disturbed to read, there was a print that looked like a cartoon drawing of a hand: The fingers were long and pointed, and there were only four of them, not five. There was also a long thin wavery indentation that must have been a drag mark.
"This chair did walk away," said Det. Kilburn, pointing.
"I see," said Bliss, staring. "An alligator. An alligator was in here. She must have stepped on its back."
The girl burst into tears. It was still hard to figure out all the components of her intense emotion. But Det. Kilburn could tell what was missing now: fear. Bliss ran over to her father and threw her arms around him, and he grabbed on for dear life.
Of course an alligator step stool was even less likely than the complicity of the family. An alligator might be crazed because of loss of habitat or proximity to humans. But it was a wild animal. It wouldn't let a person up on its back.
There was a more prosaic answer. When the storm had driven the tide in yesterday, even if it hadn't been catastrophically high, it had probably been high enough to lift a chair and carry it out to sea. In her report, though, Det. Kilburn was going to stick to the alligator story. People liked their warnings to come with teeth—and in this case, she was going to provide lots of teeth, all of them fangs.
It was time for the Prasads to get out the hell out of there.