March 24, 2019
A Dangerous Identity - Third Place Winner of the 2018 CWA First Chapter Contest
By Russell J. Fee
The girl didn’t have her head on right. That was for sure. Seeing how it lay by her side, face down in the sand, as if trying to hide from the sight of her body, which was nude and posed on the beach like a pole dancer about to spin, one leg thrust out, the other crossed over at the knee, back arched, an arm flung above what would have been her head. She had already attracted an eager audience when Sheriff Callahan arrived.
He nudged his way through the crowd until he was at the body. “Okay everyone, move back, way back,” he said and knelt on one knee. He hovered over the body without touching it, surveying it and the sand around it a moment before he called out to the onlookers. “Okay folks, show’s over. Everyone clear out.” He stood and eyed the remaining gawkers to make sure they knew he was serious. They did and began reviewing the photos and videos they had taken on their cell phones as they walked away. Callahan figured the poor girl would be on Facebook and YouTube within seconds. He crouched down on his haunches for a closer look.
Apart from her decapitation, the girl had not died well. Deep slashes crisscrossed her body nearly severing her limbs and exposing internal organs. Callahan was amazed she didn’t lose more than her head. As he took a closer look, a shadow snaked over him and settled across the body. Callahan turned and looked up. Carl Remy was staring down at him. Remy held half a sandwich in his right hand and a rolled, grey blanket under his left arm. He bent down and took a bite of his sandwich. Callahan heard the lettuce crunch.
“Hmmm,” said Remy. “Boating accident. Probably spun through the props of a yacht, judging by the size of her wounds. Either fell overboard or was diving, I would guess. Probably fell overboard. That would explain the lack of clothing. Wild parties take place on some of those yachts. I’ll check her for drugs and alcohol. Here, cover her with this.” Remy tossed the blanket to Callahan. “Might as well protect what little dignity she has left if the ghouls start sneaking back for another look before the ambulance gets here.” Remy nodded toward the people down the beach, most of whom were watching them.
Callahan stood and shook the blanket open to its full length with a quick snap and let it float down, guiding it over the girl. “You got here fast,” he said.
Remy took the last bite of his sandwich and wiped his hand on his trousers. “I was in the area having lunch with a friend when Julie called and said you wanted me over here—fast. Came right away.”
“Thanks,” said Callahan. “I don’t know how long she’s been here or how long between the time she was first discovered and someone finally called the station. Around fifteen minutes ago, Julie got an anonymous call. That’s all I can tell you.” He swept his hand over the body. “From the look of things, a crowd gathered here for a good while. The sand has been disturbed all around so it’s impossible to tell if she was dragged here or washed up from the lake. There were high winds and waves last night.” Callahan took his hat off and wiped his forehead with his bare hand. He had begun to sweat. “A bit unusual to have her severed head next to her body, don’t you think? If she washed up on the beach, you wouldn’t expect her head and body to have stayed together in the rough water.”
“Unusual but not impossible,” said Remy. “If a yacht ran her over not far from shore, the waves may have pushed her onto the beach before her head washed away from her. Also, if she was wearing clothes, maybe the shreds entangled her head and kept it with her body in the water long enough for them both to wind up here.”
Callahan gazed down the beach. “Then where are the shreds of clothing?” he asked and wiped the sweat again from his face.
Remy shrugged and said, “You look a bit green around the gills. You okay?”
Callahan ignored the question and said, “Are you good on your own for a few minutes? I want to question some of our audience. See if anyone knows something that might help us find out who she is and how she got here.”
“Wait a minute,” said Remy, laying his hand on Callahan’s shoulder.
“What?” said Callahan, twisting toward Remy.
“Aren’t you going to turn her head around and look at her face? Maybe we’ll recognize her,” said Remy.
“Well, I was hoping that . . . seeing as you’re the county medical examiner . . .,” Callahan didn’t finish the sentence.
“Oh, I get it now. You want me to do it. That’s why you got me here so fast. Fine,” said Remy. He fixed Callahan with an unsympathetic look and pulled a pair of latex gloves from his back pocket. He stretched them over his fingers as he lowered himself above the girl’s head. “Let’s just examine the skull first,” he said and began parting the hair over the rear and top of the skull. “Doesn’t appear to be trauma of any kind.” He placed a hand on either side of the head. “Upsy-daisy,” he said and raised the girl’s face out of the sand. He rolled her head over until it was on its side and, still holding it between his hands, rotated it with three, quick, delicate tosses until it faced up. Then he gently laid it back into the sand.
Callahan and Remy stared down at a face that held none of the horror its owner had experienced. Her facial muscles were not slack but relaxed, her eyes were gently closed, her lips held the last trace of a sweet smile. She looked as if she had just received a cherished compliment.
“Well, I’ll be damned. That’s Susan Gibbons, the kindergarten teacher’s aide at the school. What the hell was she doing on a party yacht?” said Remy.
* * *
Callahan left Remy by the body to perform a more thorough onsite examination, take pictures, and wait for the ambulance while he questioned people on the beach. It quickly became obvious that he wouldn’t get any more information from the crowd about the body than he had gotten from his own observations, but he extended the questioning for as long as he could. The truth was that he felt strangely affected by the scene and glad to be away from it. Certainly, there was the revulsion and accompanying waves of nausea at the condition of the corpse, but he’d seen death in enough forms to handle that. Perhaps it was her youth or the way her body had betrayed her in its odd dismemberment and public humiliation. Or her peculiar serenity after what must have been bedlam. Or the thought of how much her family would suffer at her gory debut on social media. Maybe at his age death was becoming too familiar, too close. He couldn’t put his finger on the cause, but the feeling was unfamiliar and unpleasant.
Seen on a map, Nicolet County formed a speck thirty-five miles off the west coast of Michigan in the middle of one of the Great Lakes: tiny, remote, and insignificant to all but those few who lived on the island. Callahan included himself among those few. He had come to think of himself as an islander now. Horribly mutilated and disfigured in a vicious attack as a detective with the Chicago Police Department, he had retreated into a lair of anxiety, despair, and isolation—until the island. The island had given him Julie, Max, Amanda, and a new life with purpose.
That was it. He was experiencing survivor’s guilt. The island had renewed his life, but the girl on the beach had lost hers in the water off its shores.
He needed a distraction.
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