Jacqueline Carey

Alias: Jay Carey

We Are Caught In a Net

The ghost net extended all the way from Sea Grape Villa to Gulfview Towers, both high-rise condominiums on Longboat Key, where it had been illegal to live since 2038. The key, which was off the coast of Sarasota, had been underwater for longer. But it was hard to give up on real estate once worth billions, even when all the condos and luxury estates started sticking up through a relatively flat glassy surface of water.

Detective Eureka Kilburn took young Officer George with her in the kayak to check out the net, a decision she was to regret, although he was better than she was with boats and had a real feel for the sea. The huge square of monofilament was all folded over and rucked up and balled together, half in and half out of the water. It covered a good five hundred feet between the two high-rises. Many similarly abandoned fishing nets got snagged on bleached coral reefs. This one had gotten caught on a row of dead date palms, some tilted outdoor lighting, a circle of concrete fountain cherubs, and several other elements of high end landscaping that had become nautical hazards.

You could tell that the net had been lost at sea for a while. Many of the fish it had pointlessly continued to snare were in an advanced state of decay. There were dead mackerel, skate, ladyfish, crabs, and sea turtles. Hector George took one look and got out his corephone to start filming. He was supposed to be paddling. Instead he was still streaming live when Det. Kilburn disentangled a human-sized leg bone. That was the video that went viral.

Longboat Key could be a spooky place. Anyone who lived there was essentially in hiding. Every once in a while you’d catch sight of a shadow melting into a condo’s dark moldy recesses. Or notice a sketchy figure easing into the murky water without a splash. Violence was not unknown. That was why Det. Kilburn had felt she should check out something as unusual as a ghost net. But she assumed that the bone belonged to an unlucky climate refugee. The gulf was full of desperate people trying to escape the shrinking islands of the Caribbean. Their rafts were shaky, and their boats weren’t much better. You didn’t need a net to explain a body or a body part. So it was really too much when Hector’s video turned up recaptioned as “Ghost Net Snares Human Catch?”

Hector had ended his video with a shot of a pelican that had been caught while trying to get at some of the fish. The bird had poked its very long thin beak through a hole in the net, and the monofilament had slipped down around its neck. As the pelican tried to escape, the noose pulled tighter, making the bird struggle harder and frantically beat its wings. Even Eureka, who pointed out that it was a pelican-eat-fish world, had to admit that it looked pretty pitiful.

The video’s viewers were divided as to which was more horrifying – the bone or the pelican. Hard words passed between the two camps. Ghost nets were roundly condemned. Why didn’t someone do something? Sarasota law enforcement came in for a lot of criticism from strangers from all over the world with tags like “operator” or “devilbo.” Several people actually called the station. A few somehow made the trek into Florida to see how they could help. Two got out to Longboat Key. Det. Kilburn received a disquieting call from them one day before the afternoon rains began.

The call found her alone at the station, so this time she guided the kayak solo through the torn and stinking folds of the net, which by now had been nearly picked clean by the hungry squatters in the towers. The kayak was handy because it could handle both the trip from the mainland and the relatively shallow water that covered the key. Eureka would have been able to paddle all the way out to Gulfview Towers and in through the front door if she’d wanted to. But the couple was waiting for her on the Towers’ elevated pool deck, which made a good dock.

The scene had an air of disaster. The wife, Odette Bosko, sat sprawled in a sleeveless wet suit on the poured concrete. Her head was bent forward. Strewn around her were diver’s knives, flippers, and goggles. One shoulder of the wetsuit was slit open so that the loose ends flopped over. The edges were clean, as if the cut had been made with one of her knives. Her bare arms were muscular; her hands, rough and scarred. Her long, lean body with its smooth skin looked younger than her face. Her short, flattened hair showcased the scrape on her forehead and her big, soft, wounded eyes and her surprisingly sweet smile.

Her husband, who was standing sentry, seemed physically confident, although he was less colorful. He was dressed in Bermuda shorts and an open-necked golf shirt. The shorts were damp, and the shirt was streaked with dirt. He was solicitous, but he did not appear anxious or overwhelmed. He let his wife do the talking. His name was Ron Claus.

The two of them had traveled from North Carolina so that Odette could safely cut up and dispose of the ghost net they’d seen on Hector’s video. She’d just started in on the net with the smaller of the diver’s knives, her preferred tool, when someone came up behind her, grabbed it out of her hand, and tried to cut her throat.

“Where was this?” asked Det. Kilburn.

Odette pointed about ten yards away to the broken cherubs snagged in the net. They were all you could see of the fountain now. Even at low tide, it would be under several feet of water.

The assailant cut her wetsuit, she said, then banged her head against a stone cherub. Ron had been securing the boat. When he returned she was on the deck of the pool, unconscious. He performed CPR.

“It all happened so quickly,” she finished.

“I see,” said Det. Kilburn, looking into the dark scummy water in the abandoned swimming pool beside her. It was about three-quarters full, a creepy amount for a pool, either too much or too little, depending on your point of view. “What made you call me?”

“You gave me your card,” said Odette.

Well, that was true. Det. Kilburn had gotten into the habit of going over to the Gold Hotel every night and introducing herself. But she did it in order to keep an eye on the newcomers. She was not particularly interested in listening to their stories. Especially when they expected her to believe them.

It was not immediately apparent what this couple could be up to. Did they intend to take advantage of the notoriety of the ghost net video? But how?

“Don’t you want to see a doctor?” she said.

“I’m okay,” said Odette, pulling herself together a little. She sat up straighter and held the loose ends of her wetsuit together with one hand. “I just want to get back to work.”

“Work,” repeated Eureka. “You mean on the net?”

“I’ve been doing it for years. Usually in deeper water, though.”

“Do people pay you for that?”

“Sometimes.”

“How long does it take?”

“It depends. Ideally I’ll be able to at least move the net today.”

Maybe Odette Bosko wanted the publicity in order to attract new jobs. There were worse reasons.

“Do you always travel so far?” Eureka tried to imagine what that much fuel must have cost.

“Sometimes,” said Odette. “The work is very rewarding. One more ghost net may not seem like much, but ocean life is so under siege right now every bit helps. And the poor turtles! It breaks my heart to see the droop of their lifeless legs. Were you able to free the pelican?”

“My officer did.” Eureka did not mention that the bird never recovered.

It was only then that Odette asked whether the bone could really be human, which showed which camp she was in. Pelican, for sure.

“The bone belongs to a cow,” said Det. Kilburn. “The doc here got a big kick out of it. They’re pretty rare.”

“Oh,” said Odette, impressed. “A cow.”

Cows emitted so much methane that they were strictly regulated, but Odette was probably not interested in them as sources of beef or even milk.

“My wife is certified to dive to a hundred feet,” Ron put in.

“The diving is the least of it. You have to have good hands. You have to be able to cut away the net without damaging what it’s caught on and without letting any of it free to wreak more havoc.”

“And without getting entangled yourself,” said Ron. “It’s incredibly dangerous work.”

“It would seem so,” said Eureka politely. She felt a few drops of rain. Soon it would be pouring.

Odette, evidently tired of holding her wetsuit together, let the ends go. “You don’t have any duct tape, do you?”

“I might.”

Actually, there was a roll in the emergency medical kit under the police kayak, which Eureka had left overturned on the deck behind her.

“Don’t you want to leave the wetsuit like that until you get a video of it?” she asked.

Odette was puzzled at first, then her face clouded over. “You think I want to make a show of myself?” she asked stiffly. “You are very much mistaken. I am committed to saving life on earth. It’s all I think about. It’s all I’ve been doing for years.”

“That’s nice.”

“My wife is a very dedicated woman,” said Ron.

The rain was falling softly now, and Odette’s eyes seemed to be brimming with tears.

“Let me get this straight,” Det. Kilburn said to her. “You’re over there in the fountain, and you’d just started cutting at the net when someone comes up behind you. Man or woman?”

“I assume a man. I can’t be sure. He was strong, used to pushing people around. I immediately curled into the defensive position, and I think that slowed him down some.”

“It probably saved your life,” said Ron.

“The defensive position? What’s that?” asked Det. Kilburn.

Odette brought her chin and her legs to her chest and grasped her hands behind her neck. “I was trained in nonviolence,” she said. “I told you I committed myself to saving life on earth. That inevitably involved confrontations I neither sought nor fled from.” The old phrase sprang easily to her lips.

“Did you do this stuff, too?” Eureka asked Ron.

“A little,” he said. “A long time ago. I was quite fierce at one point. That’s how I met my wife.”

“He took a blow for me,” said Odette.

Ron smiled tightly, saying, “I never had her drive.”

“So you retired from action?”

“Well, there isn’t much controversy now about what’s happening, is there?”

He had a point.

“The rain is going to get worse,” said Det. Kilburn, moving toward the fitness center adjacent to the pool area. The ground floor of the Towers would be full of water, but the fitness room was half a story higher, at the same level as the deck. She knew the locks would be no problem. On this key everything belonged to everyone.

Sand and seaweed was strewn across the floor, but at least it was dry. Light came from a band of windows that ran under the ceiling. As Odette settled on the walking belt of a treadmill, Det. Kilburn moved in closer for a visual inspection of her neck, shoulder, and hands. “All I see is the scrape on your forehead.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t get hurt more,” said Odette, starting to line up her knives like surgical instruments.

“That scrape looks nasty enough,” said Eureka. “But do you think that the defensive position was the only thing that prevented this man from slitting your throat?”

Odette turned her troubled eyes to Eureka. “Well, he also seemed to slip a little. Maybe slip is the wrong word. He was jarred. He didn’t fall over or anything. But he seemed to lose his balance a little before he hit me against the statue.”

“You’re sure he was trying to kill you? You couldn’t have mistaken his intentions?”

“No.” Odette was firm. “I’m sure.”

“Then he hit your head against a stone statue. How did he grab you? Where were his hands? Did you see them?”

“I didn’t see anything.”

“And the next thing you knew you were waking up on the deck of the pool?”

Odette nodded. The raindrops were falling outside like little jackhammers now, impossibly loud but somehow rhythmic.

“He was a monster,” said Ron over the growing dim.

“A villain, anyway,” agreed Det. Kilburn. “Presumably the net had become his food source, so it makes sense that your wife’s interference would upset him. But trying to kill her does seem extreme.”

“The fish were all rotten,” Odette protested.

“People on the keys are pretty hungry. And they probably started with the less rotten specimens.”

“Oh, dear. People live here?”

“Some. It’s only a mile and a half from shore. They hole up in the dark rooms for shelter. They collect rainwater. They try to fish from the balconies.”

Odette shook her head sadly.

“So where exactly did you put your boat?” Det. Kilburn asked Ron. “I’m assuming you rented one of the kayaks from the Gold Hotel.” The owner would not have passed up such an opportunity.

“It’s tied to a hedge around the side. It took me a while to find a place sturdy enough. I didn’t think of pulling it out of the water the way you did. Afterwards, I came around the corner and saw my wife lying beside the pool. I couldn’t tell what she was doing at first. I thought maybe she was looking for something. Then I realized and started CPR.”

The initial attack made sense to Det. Kilburn. But the assailant’s behavior afterwards did not. As for the couple’s behavior, well…

“Can you think of why this man would try to kill you and then, failing that, pull you a considerable distance to safety?” she asked Odette.

“He must have had a change of heart.”

Det. Kilburn tried the husband. “Are you sure you weren’t the one who dragged her over here?” she asked.

“You’re forgetting,” said Ron. “If I’d been that quick, I’d have seen the attacker.”

“Very true,” said Det. Kilburn. “Maybe it was someone you recognized? Someone you wanted to protect?”

“We don’t know anyone in Florida.”

At one point everyone knew someone in Florida. But now migration was going in the opposite direction, away from the sunshine state. A couple like this would not know anyone left behind.

Det. Kilburn took a different tack. “So why are you still here on Longboat Key?”

Husband and wife looked at each other.

“You think there’s a dangerous killer loose here. Why didn’t you try to get away first thing?”

“Well,” said Odette after a moment. “I guess I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“I guess not.”

“You don’t believe me!”

“No, I do,” said Eureka pleasantly. “I’m just not sure what can be done about it. It might help if I could see your kayak. Odette, you stay here out of the rain while your husband shows me.”

If either of them was bewildered by these instructions, there was no sign of it.

Outside the rain was hitting the pool, the deck, the overturned police kayak, the net, and the broken cherubs so hard you could see the drops bouncing back up and falling over again from a height of several inches. One hit from that rain wasn’t enough, it had to be two. But it would be over soon enough. It always was.

The kayak the couple had come in was tied to a hedge not far from the corner. Eureka did not bother to go out to it. Instead she stopped for a moment on the deck. Water had already plastered Ron’s shirt to his chest. His eyes were half closed by the deluge. But Eureka’s pause had loosened his tongue. “I’m getting a funny feeling here.” He was practically shouting. “Tell me I’m wrong. You can’t be crazy enough to think I had anything to do with the attack on my wife.”

“It certainly makes more sense than what I’ve been told so far. But you would have wanted to scare her, not kill her.”

“What?” he shouted over the rain.

“Scare her, not kill her,” she shouted back.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe you wanted her to think twice about going on these expensive and dangerous trips.”

“Are you married, detective?”

Eureka shook her head.

“She would have known it was me behind her. It’s a sixth sense you get.”

“I guess she knows everything about you,” said Det. Kilburn. “Right?” She turned as if to look again at how he’d tied up the kayak. Then she tried something simple. She quickly pivoted on her right foot, lifting her elbow to catch him in the kidney. His response was swift and painful, and his slick crushing hold on her wet elbow was even more excruciating than she’d expected. But she managed to gasp out, “I got you.”

It took him only a moment to realize what she meant. Then he laughed and dropped his arms. “I guess you do.” For a moment his face was transformed – vital – as if the real face had materialized behind it.

“You were trained in something, but it certainly wasn’t nonviolence,” she said, gingerly feeling her elbow in the driving rain. “Am I going to be all right?”

“Probably. But you’re awfully lucky. What did you attack me for? A person is naturally going to defend himself.”

“Oh, don’t backtrack now. I tell you, I got you.”

“So I defended her. There’s nothing wrong with that. I saved her life. But you can tell what she’s like. She’d be horrified if she knew what I did.”

“Where’s the man now?”

Ron led the way toward the drowned fountain through thigh-high water that even the tides could not completely clean of oil and sewage. The uneven terrain made walking difficult. The body was next to a broken cherub and weighted down with a pair of naked baby wings. Det. Kilburn recognized the guy. He’d lived on Longboat Key for over a year. He had crazy black eyes that hadn’t gotten any saner with death. She wouldn’t have expected him to kill a person over some dead fish, but it wasn’t a total surprise, either.

“You can’t leave him here,” she said.

“I’ll come back for him.”

“No, I better take him now. You broke his neck?”

That much was obvious. The instruction Det. Kilburn had received at the police academy was looking pretty wimpy in comparison to the mysterious training Ron had received. She didn’t think she knew how to break a man’s neck with her bare hands. He’d had the advantage of surprise, of course, but Odette’s assailant would have been a formidable opponent, fueled by wretchedness and despair. The poor man was a mess. His clothes were filthy. His Tevas did not fit him. His fingernails were curved and broken. His hair was waving around his head in long tendrils like seaweed. Eureka wondered when he last could have seen anyone he considered a friend or relative.

“Were you spying on your wife when you met her?” she asked Ron. “Is that what you don’t want her to know?”

Ron began to talk. Because of the rain, Eureka couldn’t always make out what he was saying. But she got the gist.

He was not going to name his original affiliation because it was no longer part of him. Fifteen years earlier he’d volunteered to infiltrate a radical environmental group. In the final leg of his training he’d lived with agents posing as activists, and he did not feel comfortable with them. Curiously, he was happier with the real thing. His first name had always been Ron, but the alias “Claus” came from Santa. He was surprised when he learned that some of the activists thought about the same things he did, like how people should treat the land and what constituted justice. He was very young. He’d been told that the information he was collecting would be used to prevent violence. That isn’t what happened. He had a horror of being weak-minded and easily led, but what else was he supposed to do when it turned out he’d joined the wrong side. He found himself not with two sides but with none. He’d heard of someone else who’d broken cover and come clean with everyone. Both sides disowned him, and eventually he had to leave the country. He, Ron, wanted at least half a life, so he slipped away from his employers during an action over water rights, and he never slipped back. He wasn’t sure he was happy, but at least he hadn’t ended up as alone as this poor wretch.

Ron meant the body. He spoke in fits and starts. As he talked, he and Det. Kilburn made their way back to the deck of the pool to retrieve the police kayak. Then they paddled in sync over to the underwater fountain, where they hauled out the body and stuck it in the forward of the two seats. It slumped some, but it was jammed in enough so that it wouldn’t fall out. Civilization requires that you bury your dead. And civilization requires other things to stay buried. Before she left, Eureka took out the duct tape to give to Odette. The fix would be only temporary, but what else was new.



Selected Works

The husband of an avid mystery reader is arrested for accounting fraud in this tale of corporate culture run amok.
Two sisters each want to adopt their niece. But who will be the better mother-- the high-powered executive or the stay-at-home mom?
Abandoned by her mother in the flower power sixties, a sharp-eyed teenager watches another, apparently perfect family break up.
Twelve interlocked stories set among a small circle of friends in New York City begin and end with weddings.

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