Brian Bandell



Matt Kane held an ice-cold beer in one hand, and leaned on the throttle with the other. The salty waters of the Indian River Lagoon parted before his twelve-foot skiff as sure as a herd of deer scattered from a shotgun blast, but he wouldn’t go hunting deer while his wife and kids attended Sunday church. No, Kane had a fix’n this fine morning for some fish; say a nice juicy sheepshead or a mangrove snapper. Good eats.

The blue-green waters of the estuary contained a wealth of tasty critters, especially in the stretch between north Melbourne and Satellite Beach. Kane steered his skiff along a forest of mangroves on the mainland side. The fish often hid between the roots of those waterlogged plants, but they’d pop their scaly heads out for a morsel of frozen shrimp. As he sped past a “Slow Zone” sign with a picture of a lumbering manatee, Kane tossed his empty beer can at it. He missed.

“Hey! Stop that!” an all-too-familiar voice shouted over a megaphone.

Most boaters called him the Lagoon Watcher, but Kane called him a huge pain in the ass. Kane slowed down and tipped his NASCAR hat to the kook in the center console boat with the goofy, smiling dolphins, sea turtles and manatees painted on the side. He guarded the animals in the lagoon like a stubborn toddler hoarding candy bars.

“Didn’t you see that sign?” asked the Watcher, who had the shock of puffy faded blond hair of a past-his- prime eighties rock star. He wore a custom tropical shirt and nut-hugging khaki shorts. The Lagoon Watcher had been a scientist once, or so Kane had heard, but he ambled about like a deadbeat now.

“Yeah, I saw it,” Kane said. “And I’m sorry… Sorry my aim wasn’t better.”

The flustered old man shook his head in short spurts. Kane thought for a second that it might have been a seizure. No such luck. “This lagoon is nature’s treasure and you’re not only polluting it, you’re putting its gentle citizens in danger with your reckless boating.” The Watcher scooped the beer can out of the water with a net.

“As far as I see it, I live here and pay my taxes, so I don’t need nobody tell’n me I can’t have my day fer fish’n,” Kane said. “So git on out my way.”

Kane swerved his skiff around the Lagoon Watcher’s floating fruit cup of a boat, and continued along the mangroves. He knew the wimpy Watcher, even after being punked out, wouldn’t give chase, but he got behind his megaphone for one last whine.

“The lagoon doesn’t belong to you, or any of us,” the Lagoon Watcher shouted. “Nature has a way of pushing us back.”

Kane chuckled as he thought of that screw job’s cartoonish view of the world, where fish would jump out of the water and turn their hooks on him and drunken manatees would drive pickup trucks through petrified neighborhoods. In reality, he wouldn’t bet on nature doing shit.

And sure enough, Kane struck first. Not fifteen minutes after sinking the first line in, something gave it a nice firm tug. It must have been a big one, because he couldn’t reel it in. The gill head was strong, he thought. Worried about the line snapping, Kane figured he’d wear the bastard out. He let the engine sputter along at low speed and he followed the fish as it swam parallel to the mangroves. He couldn’t see his catch through the murky waters so Kane kept one eye out ahead in case any rocks cropped up in his path. As he passed a county park with a small pier, he glanced over toward it hoping he’d have an audience that could witness him landing a fat one.

He had an audience all right. They were on their bellies with their bodies splayed out on the rocky shore and their heads and shoulders submerged underwater. The man and woman weren’t coming up for air. Their hands were as stiff and pale as a mannequin’s. Kane felt a chill in his heart as he realized living limbs didn’t look like that.

“Holy Lord,” Kane said as he cut the line and turned his boat ashore. As much as he hated letting his prized catch free with only a lip piercing, he figured he deserved as much for fishing on a Sunday morning. He wondered how those two sorry fellas had crossed God and made the good Lord come down on them so harshly.

Getting a better look at the bodies when he stepped ashore, Kane saw that they were two brown-skinned people lying beside each other in a partial embrace. They had wrapped their nearest arms around their waists. The man, a chunky fellow with a carpet of back hair sticking out from underneath the tail of his shirt, had his other arm posted on the ground as if he had been trying desperately to pull his head out of the water at the moment of his death. The short woman wore low-cut jeans that framed an ass that must have been mighty sweet when it had blood pumping through it. She had her other arm outstretched across the ground. He saw a deep bruise on her palm.

This didn’t look like a suicide pact. Someone had drowned them-maybe one of those Mexican cartels wasting their own people. That’s what they get for coming to his country illegally, Kane thought. Either way, he couldn’t let their heads stay underwater or they were likely to become gator chow.

Kane started kneeling down. He abruptly stood back up. He took a few deep breaths. The knots in his stomach didn’t subside. He had seen plenty of dead game, from deer to boars. He had gutted them, roasted them and eaten them up. But the only time he had seen a dead person was when he stood before the open casket at his grandma’s funeral. She had looked peaceful, yet so artificial with the bright makeup smeared all over her wrinkly face. He had never seen the old gal color her lips with anything besides cigarette ashes. That had been a hollow shell of his grandmother, yet he couldn’t have let her go without seeing it. The sight had hammered home her absence.

Wondering what kind of expression the woman’s lifeless face would show absent of any funeral parlor magic, Kane summoned up his gumption. He grabbed her around the shoulders and yanked her upper body out of the water. Kane stared into the empty crevice between her collarbones where her head should have been. Her skin had been sliced as precisely as a slab of pork on a cutting board. He peered into the hollow trachea where her breath once flowed. Fused between her shoulder blades, her exposed vertebra appeared in perfect condition-minus the neck and head that should have been above it. Yet, the gaping wound bled only a trickle. The dirty ground had so few droplets of blood that it didn’t make a lick of sense. Kane had taken the noggin’ off more than a few deer and boars and he had never seen a beheading so clean. He coughed a cup of stomach acid into his mouth.

Kane dropped the body back into the water and sprang away from it. His heart pounded so hard that he covered it with his hand so it wouldn’t leap out of his chest. Beheading never looked so… so damn surgical. Somebody had held that woman down and removed her head as delicately as a mechanic disassembling an antique engine. Kane didn’t dare touch the man’s corpse for fear of burdening his mind forever with another haunting image. Serial killers work in a pattern, he had been told.

He played poker with Tom Sneed, the top detective for the county sheriff. He had told Kane about a couple of unsolved murders along the lagoon-bodies they had recently found without heads and missing some internal organs. Even after a few six packs, Sneed wouldn’t tell the poker club the grisly details, but he had said he didn’t want to create a media circus around it-not that the Orlando-dominated media gave a shit what happened in Brevard County when the space shuttle wasn’t blasting off.

Those looked like murders three and four, by Kane’s count. Scanning the mangroves and the boardwalk paths as he grasped his fishing knife, Kane reckoned he’d rather not wind up as number five. As he backed toward his boat, which had his cell phone in a zip lock bag, Kane spotted something low in the mangroves. He stopped in his tracks. It was a shoe-a girl’s shoe with a unicorn on it. He should have known by the stretch marks on the dead woman’s lower back that she had a child. Kane hurried over and scooped up the empty shoe. By the looks of it, it hadn’t been out there for more than a day. He saw a pair of tracks, with one matching shoeprint and one sock print, leading deeper into the mangrove bushes.

Chewing on his bottom lip, Kane thought about high-tailing it for his boat before the surgical butcher came back. He could call in Sneed’s boys to handle this one. But that would leave the girl as fresh meat for the killer, if he hadn’t already sliced and diced her like salami. As the father of a young girl, Kane simply couldn’t walk away. He followed the tracks with his knife in hand.

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