H. Terrell Griffin
The body lay on its back, nude. Its eyes and parts of its face were gone. Chunks of flesh had been torn from its torso, its genitals mutilated.
Vultures sat impassively on the limbs of the tree that grew from the center of the tall cage. They were used to humans standing around, talking, watching, eating peanuts, their kids laughing at the funny looking birds.
I dialed Vince on my cell phone. 'There's a dead guy in your vulture pit,' I said.
'I'm on my way.'
Vince Delgado was the director of the Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary, which clung to the edge of City Island in Sarasota, Florida. Sick and injured birds were brought in for treatment and rehabilitation. Those who were too badly compromised to return to the wild after treatment were kept in cages spread around the sanctuary.
Vince was a drinking buddy from Tiny's, a bar on Longboat Key, the island just across New Pass from City Island. The night before, I had mentioned that I'd never visited his sanctuary, and he'd invited me to come down early in the morning, before the tourists showed up.
I'd been walking idly through the area, drinking from the cup of Starbucks I'd bought on St. Armand's Circle, enjoying the early morning of a bright April day. I didn't expect to see one of our citizens turned into vulture food.
Vince was chugging up the path from the office, his short arms pumping, his pumpkin-size belly jiggling as he ran. He was a short fat guy with curly black hair and a face that was overshadowed by a huge nose. His dark eyes had a look of panic as he slid to a stop at the vulture cage.
'Oh shit,' he said. 'This isn't going to look good in the papers.'
'Call the police, Vince.'
'Yeah.' He took out his cell phone and dialed 911.
'Do you know him?'
'I don't think so, but it's hard to tell with his face all chewed up. I'd better get to the front to let the cops in.'
I stood there, alone with the vultures and the dead man. Nearby, gulls were screeching for their breakfast, calling to whomever fed them, demanding service. A siren wailed in the distance, growing louder as the police cruiser turned onto Ken Thompson Parkway and headed for Pelican Man's. The car skidded to a stop on the parking lot, its siren abruptly dying, leaving only the sound of agitated birds.
A Sarasota patrolman trotted up, followed closely by a winded Vince. The young cop was my height, six feet, but he probably weighed twenty pounds more than my one eighty. His uniform hugged a body that had spent many hours in a gym. He was hatless, and his close-cropped hair resembled that of a military recruit. He introduced himself. Vince was bent over, hands on his knees, breathing heavily.
'I'm Matt Royal,' I said, shaking the officer's hand.
'Did you find the body, Mr. Royal?'
'What can you tell me about this?'
'Nothing. I was just strolling by and saw the dead man.'
'Why are you here when the place isn't even open yet?'
'Mr. Delgado invited me.'
Vince found his voice. 'I asked Mr. Royal to come by before we opened so that he could get a good look at the place. I'm hoping he'll give us a chunk of money.'
It was an open secret that the sanctuary was in financial trouble. It depended on donations and admission charges for the daily tours, and the just-ended winter season had not been kind to the birds. Donations had dried up.
The policeman turned back to me. Vince winked, signaling that he knew I wasn't a donor.
The cop looked closely at me, a small scowl on his face. 'Did you touch anything?'
'Don't run off. The detectives will want to talk to you.' He pulled his radio mic from the Velcro tab on his shoulder and called for the detectives and a crime scene unit.
Vince had regained his composure; his breathing was back to normal. 'We'll be in the office,' he said, and we left the policeman to wait alone for his colleagues.
The next day, early, I was enjoying my morning ritual, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper on my sunporch overlooking Sarasota Bay. The sun was tentatively peeking over the mainland, as if trying to decide whether to show itself. A flats fishing boat sped by out on the Intracoastal, the high whine of its outboard competing with the cries of diving gulls. The phone rang.
The soft voice pierced my brain, resonating of joy and regret and loss. Images flashed. A tall brunette clad in the white garb of a nurse, her hazel eyes bright with humor. A smile that could make a man weep. Lips that once caressed mine, lightly, like the fine hair of a butterfly's wing. And sometimes, hungrily, drawing me into her in bursts of passion that singed my soul. My hand tightened around the phone.
'This is Laura.'
'Are you well, Matt?'
'No. I need to see you.'
'Breakfast. I'm at the Hilton.'
'I'll be there in twenty minutes,' I said.
She hung up.
Longboat Key is a small island, about ten miles long and a quarter-mile wide. It lies off the southwest coast of Florida, south of Tampa Bay. I live on the north end in a condo facing Sarasota Bay. The Hilton Hotel sits on the Gulf of Mexico about three miles south of my home.
We'd met soon after Laura finished her degree in nursing. She was standing in my cubicle in the emergency room, grinning. I had just finished law school and begun practicing in Orlando. A pick-up game of football in a city park had landed me in the hospital with a twisted ankle.
'What's so funny?' I asked.
'Nothing. You just look kind of bedraggled. Not as spiffy as you were when I saw you at Harper's last night.'
'Yes, the bar. I was there watching the beautiful people hang out.'
'I'm not one of them.'
'Oh? Could've fooled me.'
'I was there with a client who is one of the beautiful people.'