by E. Michael Helms, Seventh Street Books, Fall 2013, an imprint of Prometheus Books.
Recently retired Marine Mac McClellan is enjoying the vacation of a lifetime in the Florida panhandle while contemplating what to do with his post-Corps life. While fishing near Five-Mile Island one morning, his first cast of the day hooks a badly decomposed body. Authorities are notified, and when divers discover Mac’s engraved pocketknife near the body, Mac and Palmetto County Sheriff Bo Pickron butt heads. Mac is warned not to leave the area.
Later, when dental records identify the “Jane Doe” as twenty-year-old Maddie Harper, shock waves reverberate through the coastal village of St. George. Maddie, popular niece and ward of mayor and real estate magnate George Harper, was supposed to have eloped and currently be honeymooning along the Appalachian Trail with high school sweetheart, Brett Barfield.
To complicate matters, a bale of Panama Red, a rare strain of marijuana popular during the Hippie era, washed ashore a few weeks prior at the location Mac made his grisly catch. When a baggie of Panama Red is found stashed aboard his rental boat, Mac becomes a suspect in both Maddie’s death and a possible drug smuggling operation.
With the help of Kate Bell, feisty saleslady at the local marina with whom Mac’s struck up a promising relationship, he launches an investigation to discover why he’s being set up to take the fall.
I lowered the rod, pointed the tip at whatever I’d snagged and pulled, hoping to free the lure. No such luck. I tried again with the same results. Well, damned if I was going to give it up without a fight. I’d paid six ninety-five plus tax for that MirrOlure at the marina shop last evening. I lived just fine on my military retirement, but seven bucks was seven bucks. If it came down to it I’d swim for that lure.
After a few more tries I gave up trying to free the lure. It was stuck fast. The thought of getting wet this early in the morning didn’t thrill me, but moving the boat closer to the grass flat would be more likely to spook whatever fish might be lurking around than my wading. Decision made, I released the bail to give the line some slack and leaned the spinning outfit against the gunnels. The clear water looked shallow enough, but just to be sure I grabbed the paddle from its rack. The handle slipped beneath the surface and the water rose past my elbow before the blade struck bottom. With luck my head and neck would be above water.
I shed my shirt, kicked off my new leather deck shoes, emptied my pockets and unclipped the cell phone from my belt. There wasn’t much wind to speak of, but I knew that could change without warning. So, I crawled onto the bow, unfastened the anchor, slipped the rope through the bow guide and lowered it to the bottom. I gave the anchor line a few feet of slack and wrapped it fast to a cleat. I tugged on the 12-pound test monofilament again to relocate my target. Satisfied of my bearings, I braced my hands on the gunnels and hopped over the side.
The bay was chilly even though June was just a few days away. I stood there a minute getting used to the water which topped out just below my shoulders. Then I headed for the grass flat using the “stingray shuffle” that Kate, the attractive saleslady at Gillman’s, had demonstrated for me should I decide for whatever reason to go wading in these waters. A trip to the local emergency room to remove a stingray barb wasn’t high on my vacation agenda.
I found the fishing line, held it loosely in my right hand and eased along. I kept my eyes focused on where I thought the lure was, making as little motion as possible. About halfway to the target a light breeze rose and drifted my way. That’s when the stench hit, almost gagging me. Iraq flashed through my mind, bodies rotting in the alleys and rubble of Fallujah. Whatever the hell I’d snagged had to be sizeable to raise that much stink. A dolphin or sea turtle; maybe a shark. Lamar had mentioned that this area of the bay was a prime breeding ground for certain species of sharks. Well, if this was a shark I smelled, it was in no condition to attack me.
I covered my mouth and nose with my free hand and kept going, breathing as little and shallow as possible. Just a few feet from my objective I lifted the line out of the water and gave it a light pull. Five feet away the surface exploded. Hundreds of small fish and blue crabs darted and scurried in every direction. I tripped backwards and nearly went under before I somehow regained my footing. My heart was racing, and despite the foul air I grabbed several deep breaths to calm myself. Then I saw it–my lure, imbedded in the bleached white underbelly of a large fish sticking halfway out of the grass.
“You chickenshit,” I muttered, glad no fishing buddies were along to witness my brave reaction to a bunch of scavengers feasting on a dead fish. I turned my head and took another deep breath and covered the few remaining feet as fast as possible. Pulling the line tight, I reached for the lure. My hand froze in midair and I stumbled back again, heart pounding. Christ on a crutch, this was no dead fish! It was a leg–a human leg!