‘Dead body, Daddy,’ Whit answered.

‘Ah,’ Babe said, watching Whit. ‘You’re not wearing that, are you?’

‘Why?’ Whit stuck his feet into the old boat shoes. A hole at the front of one showed a sliver of his toenail.

‘Well, son, God Almighty, there might be some voters there. A crowd. You ought to look more judicial. Maybe a suit.’

‘Daddy, I don’t have time to change.’ Whit kept his voice in check. Thirty-two and still his father lectured him. ‘The corpse sure isn’t gonna care what I’m wearing.’ He pushed past his father and pulled a beaten navy baseball cap that commemorated a Port Leo fishing tournament (‘Pray for Marlins’) off a hat tree on the kitchen wall.

‘See, this hat’s all civic. I’m set,’ Whit said.

‘Whit?’ Irina called to him from his father’s bedroom. He crossed the kitchen and glanced down the hall. She stood in the doorway, God help him, sporting a flouncy little peignoir that a hearty sneeze would send drifting. Living at home was a bad idea, and as soon as the election was over he was so out of here.

‘Who rang, Whit?’ Voice like warm caramel drizzled on skin.

‘I got to go certify a dead body,’ he answered, not looking at her.

‘Tell him to put on a suit,’ Babe hollered from the kitchen.

‘A dead person? Who is it?’ Eet, she said. Her Russian accent grew more feathery in sleepwear. For God’s sakes, she came from a cold climate. Didn’t she believe in flannel?

‘I don’t know,’ he white-lied. If the son of the most powerful woman in the Texas Senate lay dead on a boat, Whit wasn’t going to breathe one word before any official announcement.

His stepmother – twenty-five – gave him a smile that nipped the edges of his heart. ‘Shall I make you some coffee to take with you? A sandwich?’

Yeah, if he was going to work a corpse with a bullet blasting open its head, he wanted a snack. But he smiled, grateful for the kindness.

‘No, thanks. Be back in a bit.’ Whit jingled his keys in his pocket.

‘Be careful,’ Irina called as he stepped out onto the grand front porch. Good advice. The previous three nights he’d dreamed of Irina in the most unmotherly ways. Be careful, right. He might mumble Irina in his sleep, and Faith Hubble would justifiably castrate him with her bare nails.

The night sky glowed with far-off lightning. A freshly brewed storm hovered over the western Gulf of Mexico, scudding dark clouds over Port Leo. The October air blew heavy with the promise of rain.

Whit eased his Ford Explorer down the crushed-oyster-shell driveway. He sped down Evangeline Street, past the old Victorian homes, till he reached Main Street, then headed north, threading through downtown, toward the marina.

The Port Leo storefronts catering to the winter Texans and tourists stood dark. He sped past Port Leo Park and its attendant curves of grass and beach; past the dour, guano-grimed statue of St Leo the Great, the town’s namesake because of his reputed ability to calm storms; past a line of trendy galleries selling the wares of the town’s many artists. The large shrimpers’ fleet docked at the downtown marina bobbed at rest. A couple of nightclubs, with cheesy names like Pirate’s Cove and Fresh Chances (for what, Whit wondered – to catch syphilis?), remained open, strobe lights flashing against the windows, but few cars were parked in the lot.

A red Porsche 911, blaring K.C. and The Sunshine Band’s ‘Boogie Man,’ bulleted past him. In his rearview mirror, Whit saw the wink of the roadster’s solitary taillight as it braked to swerve onto a side street. See you in traffic court soon, and I may double your fine for your music, Whit thought.

Main Street merged into Old Bay Road, which snaked alongside St Leo Bay. A modest strip of grayish white beach, the color of dirty sugar, lay along the bay’s rim, then there was the road, and then a line of rental cottages and retiree homes. Across the expanse of St Leo Bay the jeweled lights of several pleasure boats cruised past. Whit lowered his window and breathed in the coastal perfume of

dead fish, weathered wooden docks, and salt wind caught in high grass. A clump of signs along the road read ELECT BUDDY BEERE JUSTICE OF THE PEACE.

Campaigning sucked. Whit hated it. Election Day loomed just over two weeks away and Buddy, his esteemed opponent, had littered Port Leo with enough flyers and signs to endanger a forest. Whit had slapped several magnetic signs on his Explorer (Whit rechristened his car ‘the Vote Mobile’) and erected twenty small post signs at major intersections around the county. He had not made time to phone, knock on doors, and shake hands for votes, hating the idea of begging strangers to put him in a job. If Buddy Beere – who Whit considered to have an IQ lower than a swarm of gnats, even a big swarm – defeated him, Whit’s local career options included scooping ice cream, working a fishing boat, or frothing lattes at Irina’s.

He drove past a huge sign asking him to REFLECT LUCINDA HUBBLE TEXAS SENATE. The pictured Lucinda waved with her trademark big red hair and her bright blue eyeglasses, simultaneously evoking a kindly aunt and a confident leader.

If this dead guy was Pete Hubble, mess wouldn’t begin to describe it.

Whit wheeled into the crushed-oyster-shell parking lot of Golden Gulf Marina. The main building was a faded sea-green with white trim, now ablaze in the spinning red-and-blues of the police cars. This death had drawn an array of authorities: Port Leo police, Encina County sheriff’s deputies, Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife cruisers, and the highway patrol. It looked like a law-and-order convention. The Hubble name must’ve gotten mentioned over the police bands and all came running for a quick peek.

Whit cursed under his breath.

A small crowd of marina residents had been ousted from their boats and milled in the lot, dressed in robes and shorts, watching the proceedings in the glow of the mercury lights.

Whit parked and grabbed a notebook full of JP forms, a pair of latex gloves, and a flashlight from the death- scene kit he kept in his car. Fox, the patrolman who had summoned him, stood watch by a swath of yellow police tape and nodded.

‘Hey there, Judge Mosley.’ Fox blinked at the tropical shirt and disheveled shorts. ‘Come from a party?’

‘No.’ Whit grimaced. ‘Down there?’ At the farthest tip of the docks, an officer climbed off a hefty cruiser.

‘Yes, sir. Damn nice boat.’

Whit ducked under the yellow police tape. Maybe I should have worn the suit.


Whit had served as justice of the peace for only six months, since the previous justice died in a car crash after several years in office. He’d accepted the appointment from the county commissioners, all cronies of his father’s, because he needed Direction. Over the past five years since he’d shuffled back to Port Leo, his jobs shared only their brevity: photographing sports part-time for the paper, managing a defunct fifties-themed ice cream parlor with the ill-advised name of Shimmy Shimmy Shakes, and running a messenger service that never delivered profits.

His father measured success by oil leases, acreage, investment income, and wifely pulchritude, and believed in Direction (especially for English majors who had cost him fifty thousand dollars to educate at Tulane). Babe cajoled his buddies into appointing Whit to the remainder of the dead JP’s term. Whit decided to give it a shot. Judge would make the most respectable addition to his crazy-quilt resume.

Whit pored over justice court law but felt awkward and stupid every time he had to consult a book during a hearing, impatient litigants tapping their feet. He bought some dime-store eyeglasses to smarten his appearance and cut his blondish hair short but wore his beach-bum clothes (polos, shorts, and sandals) beneath the black sobriety of the robe. To Whit’s surprise he liked the work: he adjudicated small claims and traffic court, which could be dishwater dull or raucously entertaining (depending on the cases), but he also issued arrest and search warrants, magistrated the arrested into jail, signed commitment orders for the insane, ordered autopsies, and conducted death and fire inquests.

With Encina County too small for a medical examiner of its own, Whit served as the first line of forensic defense. So far in his six months this unpleasant duty had reared itself four times: once with a car crash at the edge of the county, twice with drownings on St Leo Bay, and once for an elderly suicide who, his insides gnawed with

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