It was a cold but clear morning and the sun had yet to break the horizon. Ed Wriggle didn’t know the time nor cared to consult his watch. He had to be there, although he’d rather not. Real dog hours. And worse, a chill carried over the water. Wriggle bundled up. His pager went off regularly. The brass wanted an update. Instead, he considered tossing the communications device into the breakwater-lined channel over which he rode.
Its natural shallows, where on a bright day the bay’s fish could be seen, were hidden by darkness, and the small tugboat he had commandeered traveled with caution as it took him to the crime scene. Never one for the water, he clung to a metal handrail outside the pilothouse as the boat jostled about on an uneasy sea. It moved through the wide Seddon Channel in the shadow of downtown Tampa. On either side were islands that formed a tiny archipelago.
Technically, this wasn’t the type of crime Wriggle worked as a Major Cases detective, not his fucking responsibility. Regardless, shit like this wasn’t supposed to happen here, where good folk lived. And he wondered why the bangers couldn’t make their statement a mile upstream. Hang the body from their haunt. Then it wouldn’t be close to being his problem.
The engine wubbed as the tug slowed.
It joined the chorus of thump-thump-thumping of helicopter blades overhead, from which a bright beam gradually swayed over a water-bound object.
“Christ on a stick,” said Wriggle as the crime scene came into full view. He’d seen it from a distance, but hadn’t focused until now. He made the sign of the cross despite not being a Catholic. It felt right.
The surf frothed and drew back before churning forward again. Water awash with filth. The idle tug listed and turned up a rancid odor. The runoff of fuel and waste was a fitting stink for a dead body absent stench.
Detective Wriggle, now more surefooted, let go of the rail and attempted to stir his coffee. Cool it down, but the tug tipped slightly. Hot liquid slipped over the Styrofoam cup’s edge and onto his hand. “God dammit,” Wriggle cursed. He wiped it on his sleeve as another boat, its wake the disturbance’s source, came alongside his own.
Detective Moses was on board. Brown-noser extraordinaire, at least when around the brass, around anyone else he was an asshole. “What took so long,” he said.
“Our division’s marine unit is indisposed.” And by indisposed Wriggle meant still awaiting a purchase order. “I had to catch a ride.”
This wasn’t lost on Moses. “Get your shit together, you make us all look bad.”
“Don’t I know it.” City council created Wriggle’s division a year earlier out of necessity, and the whole department struggled to adapt. There was infighting over resources and confusion as to where the lines were drawn. A high-profile crime in the channel added a new wrinkle.
Neither man wanted the case.
“Homicide takes the garden variety murders,” argued Moses. “Major Crimes, you, get this exceptional beauty.”
Wriggle disagreed. “Your Islands, your channel, your vic.” He wanted to put a finger in Moses’ chest, push him overboard.
They quarreled over jurisdiction. The Homicide detective brought printed orders to back up his point. Wriggle had only salty words.
“If only the feds would claim her,” Moses offered in jest.
“Don’t get my hopes up.” But hope Wriggle did, because across the narrow waterway was the Port of Tampa. It was the largest port in Florida and a major shipping hub that served cruise lines and cargo freighters. Wriggle stared at its distant lights and the moored behemoths they outlined.
His silence prompted Detective Moses. “You conceding?”
Wriggle remembered a crossword answer from the day before. Cleromancy. A ten-letter word for fucked by fate. “Seems the brass drew lots, and I lost.”
“I’ll help. It’s a murder,” Moses was all snark.
“No shit, she didn’t string herself up there.” Wriggle studied the scene. Against a wooden pole that rose out of the water, someone had hoisted the body. Braided cord held the corpse upright. It crisscrossed around naked skin and bound her to the thick pillar like a statue. Wriggle determined it was a deliberate position that exposed her once gorgeous, now wasted figure. With slender, waterlogged legs food for fish. Evidenced by nibbled away pieces of bloodied flesh and bits of barnacle collecting in the lesions, which transitioned to recognizable traits above the waist. Her head was unnaturally turned, it too restrained by the rope, and she looked over her shoulder. Eyes wide with harrowing despair that stared longingly toward the city, a place she’d never see again.
Moses gave his two cents, “she’s Costa Rican or Peruvian.”
“I dated a girl from there who looked like her.”
Wriggle dismissively shook his head.
A coroner who’d come with Moses had been examining the body best he could while the detectives bickered. He finally chimed in with responsibility settled. “From what I gather she’s in her late teens, but the ethnicity remains undetermined.”
“How the fuck did a body get out here?”
“She didn’t swim,” the coroner was matter-of-fact.
“Tides going out, was she alive and left here to drown,” asked Moses.
“Not a chance,” observed Wriggle. A worn-in waterline on the wood only reached halfway up the pole. “If she drowned it wasn’t here.”
The coroner ignored the speculation. “We’ll have to wait for the autopsy to see if she ingested saltwater.”
Wriggle already knew. The way her eyes bulged and the blue tinge in her cheeks, it was a lack of air that did her in, and the detective observed no ligature markings or bruising around the neck to suggest strangulation. “If I were a betting man, I’d say she drowned.”
“You are a betting man, you degenerate,” Moses joked. “I heard you gamble on preseason football, and the Bucs at that, a true masochist. You must love to lose.”
“I lost today catching this mess, and I don’t love it.” Wriggle felt off. He couldn’t place the feeling, butgriped about the early hour and its effect on his marriage.
Moses had little sympathy. “All the overtime-pay coming, why worry, the missus will understand.”
“Naw, I think it’s when she steps out on me.” And yet Wriggle needed overtime because he couldn’t afford to pass up the extra cash. He already owed alimony for two failed marriages and his third was on the rocks. Sisyphus-Eddy, he pushed back up that hill each day trying to outrun his problems before they crushed him. He figured that was what he felt. The crush. He chewed on the plastic coffee stirrer in frustration. He spat it into the water.
“You’re a model cop, Wriggle.”
“Bite me, Moses.” The Major Cases detective surveyed the city at dawn. Downtown’s tall metal structures scraped against the darkness. Sharp points caught the morning light with the gleam of another day approaching, and another up-hill battle. “What else. Talk to me.”
Moses reviewed his notes. “A night fisherman in a shrimp trawler found her here earlier, around three. He’s been detained for questioning. We don’t know much else. You got anything to add,” he asked the coroner.
“What looks like sexual trauma based on light bruising around the inner thighs.” The man had a flashlight on her privates, but no one dared disturb them.
“Or she liked it rough,” Wriggle said.
“Again, I’ll need lab work. Otherwise, it’s speculation.”
It was all speculation. Here the only certainty was crime and Wriggle blamed the cesspool that was his city. He waited while a flash of cameras documented the scene. Another chopper was overhead. This one had no sweeping lights and hovered at a distance. “One of ours?” Wriggle wasn’t sure.
“No, channel eight. Smile we’re on TV.”
Wriggle spat in its direction. “No respect, as if we needed another circus.”
“Jokers to the left of me, clowns on my right.” Moses whistled out the difference.
Wriggle huffed. The reality of how little evidence there was set in.
“Shame there’s no witnesses,” Moses sympathized as if reading his mind.
“There was one,” Wriggle corrected him. He pointed up at an object that tore into the dark morning sky. A comet that had been there for months. Hale-Bopp. The lone witness.