As an Iraqi war hero, Wendell Hughes is familiar with death. But this does not prepare the Detective for what he finds in a sailboat anchored in the Matanzas River.
St. Augustine is a city famous for its ghosts, and few of its citizens will deny having seen one. Wendell is willing to keep the possibility of ghosts open in his mind, but he has never actually seen one.
Until now. Wendell doesn’t expect that he will be able to bring the only witness to the murder into court to testify, especially when it is the ghost of Cassie May. Somewhere between the harsh world of Forensic Science, and the mystical one that Cassie lives in, lies the answers that Wendell desperately needs to solve his case.
Monday ? Three Days before the Full Moon
My clock radio needlessly bursts into song halfway through Pink Floyd’s performance about not wanting to share money.? Needlessly, because this Monday morning, there is no reason for me to be up at 7 a.m.? My partner, Randal Hurt, is on vacation this week and thus I am out of the rotation for new cases.? My week will be spent behind a desk at the police station completing old paperwork and reviewing cold cases.? There is no point in my showing up for the early morning review of the weekend’s assault and burglary cases at eight o’clock.? I’ll stroll into the station about nine.
I punch the radio off button and roll back into the bed.
However, old habits die hard, and my mind won’t relax back into slumber.? After tossing for a couple of minutes I hear the final gurgles of the coffee pot as it finishes its automatic and timely brewing of a pot of Columbia’s finest brew.? Following the aroma of the fresh coffee, I sleepily stumble toward the kitchen.
The sunrise over Anastasia Island casts a pink hue on my otherwise light green drapes.?
I toss a frozen sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit into the microwave and punch in the familiar 90-second cooking time.? Pulling the cord to open the drapes and then sliding the glass door aside, I step out onto the deck wearing only my boxers.? No one will see.? I have no neighbors within sight, just one of the reasons why I love this house.
The small, two bedroom, boxy house would not normally illicit such a romantic response, but the primary reason for my emotional attachment is the view.? I sit on the patio chair, and set my coffee mug on the table to cool.? Sipping the coffee, I reflect on the rising sun over the island.? I watch the rosy hue it casts upon the water of the Matanzas River turning its waves into shimmering sparkles.?
The microwave chimes, and after another minute to let the biscuit cool, I return for my breakfast and a coffee refill.? With the biscuit wrapped in a paper towel, I carry it and my coffee mug down the wood-slat walkway that leads to the boat dock. ?Much of the backyard is marsh, and is underwater during most storm surges, so this pathway to the dock is a long elevated wood pier extending from the patio deck.? The backyard is still littered with debris that floated up during the last hurricane a month ago.? The storm didn’t make a direct hit on the city, most don’t.? The westward knee bend in the Florida coast leaves the Gulf Stream about eighty miles offshore and most storms seem to stay in this warmer water.? Thus, this last hurricane had only grazed by, but its waves and storm surge did do considerable damage to the beach.? The sands of the shoreline are constantly moving and whole sections of the islands can be picked up and moved.? The sand from the north end of Anastasia Island moved to enlarge Vilano Beach back in the 70s.? The road from St. Augustine to the beach had to be rerouted after a section of it completely washed away.
One day I’ll buy a boat.
Not sure when I’ll be able to afford to buy a boat.? Besides, with my residence here so precarious, it probably is not a wise purchase.? While the house is small, the lot is huge and the view is expensive.? I could not normally afford this luxury on a police detective’s salary.? But, for now, I get to live in this slice of paradise free.? It is the winter home of a war buddy’s widowed mother.? She usually lived in Pennsylvania, but spent her winters in St. Augustine ? she was a snowbird, as the locals call such transient residents.? When she died last year, ownership of the house went to my friend, and he lets me live here free of charge while he decides what to do with the place.? He thinks he owes me something, and this is his repayment.? He thinks I saved his life in Iraq, and I have medals that back up his story, but I don’t have any memory of the incident.? The psychologist said memory loss following post-traumatic stress was normal.? Maybe the memory will return one day and maybe it won’t, but for now, I love living here.
Stepping down to the dock, I sit on the plastic chair bolted to this spot for this exact experience.? I watch the peaceful glory of the morning begin over the water.
The Intracoastal Waterway lies along this stretch of the Matanzas River, and boat traffic is, more or less, perpetual.? To the south, a sailboat is motoring northward and I eat my breakfast sandwich while I watch it slowly pass by.? The lone silver haired man sitting at the helm of the thirty-five foot long watercraft waves to me as the graceful sailboat passes.? I return the friendly gesture hoping he doesn’t notice that I’m in my underwear.? My coffee mug is again empty, but the desire to enjoy the morning exceeds my need for more caffeine, so I simply set the mug down on the dock and watch the stern of the sailboat fade into the north.? Further northward of the sailboat, a small powerboat appears from St. Augustine, barreling southward at full speed.? It suddenly slows to a near stop as it approaches the sailboat to reduce its wake and the two boats slowly pass beam to beam.? Then, the overanxious motorboat’s pilot quickly resumes his full speed journey southward.
As the noisy boat passes by, I see it is a St. Johns County Sheriff’s boat.? Its lone occupant, wearing a Sheriff Deputy’s uniform, looks at me as he passes.? He quickly closes the motor’s throttle, which elicits a huge bow wave as the boat suddenly drops down off its high-speed plane.? He turns the boat and steers straight toward me.? As he slowly approaches my dock, he kills the engine.
"Are you Detective Hughes?" he asks as the boat drifts to within twenty feet of my dock.
"What?" I say and hold my hand to my ear.? I had heard him perfectly well, but I wanted to have a moment to think what this early morning visit might mean before engaging him in conversation.? Why would a Sherriff’s Deputy?in a boat?want me so early in the morning?
"I said? are you Detective Sergeant Wendell Hughes?" he repeats louder, though he is now only ten feet away.
"Why don’t you answer your phone?" he continues talking while holding up his mobile phone and gives it a shake.
"It’s in the house," I defensively reply and nod to the building behind me.? Expecting that he is now going to ask me to take a robbery case I add, "Besides, I’m not in the rotation this week."
"They told me to come get you," he says as he extends his foot to soften the landing of the boat upon my dock.? I don’t move to help him as he steps off and ties up.? "There’s been a murder," he concludes.
This explains it.? Randal and I are the only St. Augustine police detectives who have actually solved a murder case.? This is not to say that the other detectives are inept, rather murder is very rare in this sleepy tourist town.? If one looks at the raw statistics, the crime rate in St. Augustine, Florida, is higher than the national average, and even higher than the Florida state average.? But, this is misleading as the statistics are based on per capita population in residence.? Being a year round vacation town, the actual population of the small city is always substantially higher than just the resident population.? If the total population were counted in the statistic, the true sleepy nature of the town’s crime rate would appear.? Thus, my partner and I happened to catch the only murder case this decade, and solved it, leaving us with substantial notoriety.
I was born in this town, and other than my time in college and the army, I’ve lived here all of my 27 years.
"I’ll get dressed and drive in," I respond while standing and exposing my lack of attire.? I begin to walk back to the house.
"You need to get dressed, yes," he yells after me.? "But you’ll need to come with me.? The victim is on a boat anchored in the bay.? You’ll need a boat to get there."
I turn back to look at him and then nod my head acknowledging this odd revelation.?
Once dressed in black slacks and a white short-sleeve shirt, I walk back to the waiting boat with my suit coat and tie over my shoulder.? I might need them today, but I’m not going to wear them now.? The deputy restarts the boat’s motor as I appear at the backdoor.? He makes no move to help me as I untie the boat and step aboard in my hard sole dress shoes.? He backs the boat away from the dock, turns the bow into the river and press the throttle full forward as I drop into the seat.
Our thundering roar shatters the morning serenity as we head the four miles north into St. Augustine.
The Matanzas River is not a river at all.? Rather, it’s a tidal marsh between the Florida mainland and the barrier island, Anastasia Island.? The waterway was dredged to become part of the inland water highway that stretches from New England to the Florida Keys known as the Intracoastal Waterway.? At the south end of Anastasia Island is the namesake of the river, Matanzas Inlet.? The word means ‘slaughters’ in Spanish, as this is the location where about 250 French soldiers and sailors were slaughtered.? In 1565, the French held Fort Caroline in what is now Jacksonville, and were battling for control of the area with the Spanish here in St. Augustine.? A fleet of French ships, now known as the Lost French Fleet, attempted to attack the Spanish, but a hurricane scattered and sank the fleet as they grounded on the coastal shoals between here and Cape Canaveral.?
The survivors struggled up the beach, trying to get back to Fort Caroline, but were stranded on the barrier island south of Anastasia.? All except 16 were disarmed, bound, and slain by the Spanish.? The 16 who were saved were the only Catholics among the otherwise Protestant Frenchmen.? This occurred in the midst of French Religious War between the Catholics and the Protestants, and the Spanish were clearly on the side of the Catholics.? However, this was not actually as barbaric as it first sounds.? The food supply in St. Augustine was already low and there was no chance for resupply before spring.? There would have been no food and shelter for all of the Frenchmen had they been brought back to the village of St. Augustine.? They would have all died of starvation anyway.?
The north end of the Matanzas River joins with the Tolomato River at the St. Augustine inlet.
The deputy slows the boat as we approach the Bridge of the Lions that crosses over the Matanzas River from the city of St. Augustine to Anastasia Island.? The bridge, built in 1927, is named for the two Medici lions that guard the western end.? The marble lions are copies of a 16th century statue at the Villa Medici in Rome.? The sculptures depict standing male lions with a sphere under one paw while looking to the side.? The anecdote consistently told by city tour guides, that the lion’s sculptor committed suicide upon discovering that he had forgotten to give them tongues, is completely false.
The deputy steers toward an identical Sheriff’s boat tied beside a sailboat slightly smaller than the one that had passed my house earlier in the morning.? Another deputy and a uniformed city police officer are standing in the second powerboat watching our approach.
"Hello, Carl," I acknowledge the police officer as he helps tie our boat alongside theirs.? He simply grunts.? "What do we have?"? I press him for information.
"Deputy Lopez was the first on the scene," he says with a choking swallow and a nod toward the deputy beside him.? Few officers of the St. Augustine police force ever see a dead body.
I look to him and finally Lopez begins.? "I approached the boat about an hour ago," he says.?
I glance at my watch and see that it is now 8:30 a.m. so I note the time of 7:30 in my notebook.
"I approached to warn the guy that he was in violation of the Anchoring and Mooring 50-foot rule."?
There is a city ordinance that prohibits boats from anchoring within 50 feet of the navigable channel.? This is a major problem for sailboats with deep keels as it is hard to find sufficiently deep water inside the bay that is not within 50 feet of the channel.? While the rule was enacted to control the number of derelict boats that were perpetually anchored, it raises substantial ire among the boat cruising population.?
"I was just going to warn him so he could move before getting ticketed," Deputy Lopez continues.? "But," he pauses and swallows hard, "I saw that."? He nods in the direction of the sailboat’s stern cockpit.
From my vantage point, I can see nothing inside the cockpit, and these guys are not going to tell me anything more.? I kick off my hard-soled shoes and pull off my socks.? Barefoot, I climb from our powerboat to the other one and then stand on its gunwale to peer inside the sailboat.? The two officers shift to the opposite side of the boat to counterbalance my weight.? A young man wearing only thin cotton pants is lying in a pool of blood on the cockpit sole.? The man is pale, though this could be from loss of blood, with no apparent ethnic characteristics.
I look back to the two lawmen and ask, "Have either of you been aboard?"? They both struggle to keep their breakfast down and shake their heads ‘no’.
Using the sailboat’s lifeline stanchion, I pull myself up to a kneeling position of the sailboat’s gunwale.? The man’s neck has been sliced from ear to ear.? His dying heart had pumped out his blood supply into the cockpit.? The boat’s normal water drains allowed much of the blood to drain into the bay.?
I wonder where the sharks are.
I snap several pictures as an eerily similar experience from Iraq flashes through my brain.? Our Humvee had been hit by a roadside bomb, and a piece of shrapnel had sliced through a buddy’s neck in just this way.? The hot iron fragment had managed to find the exact spot between his body armor and his chin, and his head had been nearly severed, just like this man’s.
The entire cockpit of the pretty sailboat is splattered with blood, and there are several smudges where the assailant slipped in the blood as he walked around the body and into the boat’s cabin.? I can see that the victim has no wallet or jewelry.? Pulling on latex gloves and being careful not to disturb any of the smudges, though none look like usable footprints, I climb over the body and into the cabin.
The cabin appears to contain normal boating materials for a single-handed weekend trip?food, bedroll, dirty pots and pans.? In the forward cabin, there are several scuba tanks and diving equipment.? These are rather unusual as sailboats don’t make particularly good scuba diving platforms, and there is little sport diving in this area.? Perhaps the guy was heading to or from the reefs of southern Florida.? I look around in obvious places, but can find no weapons, wallet, or other identifying papers.? I take more pictures.
Returning to the Sheriff’s powerboat I say, "I can’t find any ID, but we’ll have to wait for the coroner before moving the body around.? I want to take some pictures of the boat as it is here, and then you can tow it to the City Dock.? You’ll want to close the dock off to the public until the coroner is finished."?
The deputy begins to talk into his radio.?
Turning to the deputy that had brought me I add, "Let’s pull back away from the boat and so I can take some pictures, and then drop me at the City Dock."?
"Wendell," Carl finally says, "there’s one more thing," and he points to the boat’s stern.? The deputy lets our boat drift back and I see that there is a small bloody handprint on the back of the boat about a foot above the waterline.? Getting as close as possible, I take a picture of it.
"Okay, try to tape a cover over it with some plastic or something?to keep it from washing away when you move the boat," I command and then we untie and pull away.
I snap several pictures against the various city landmarks to allow accurate positioning of the boat on a map.? Once back on land, I walk along the sidewalk north from the City Dock toward the Castillo de San Marco.? The boat is about halfway between this Spanish fort, built in 1672, and the Bridge of the Lions, and about 50 yards offshore of the seawall.? Standing on the seawall sidewalk, among a throng of rubbernecking vacationers, I snap several more pictures.?
"What is it?? What happened?" one of them asks me.
"Nothing to worry about," I say reflexively though I have no idea whether or not the killer is harmless to tourist.
As I step away from the crowd, a familiar voice quietly says in my ear, "She was there."
I turn and look into the face of Cameron Jones.? I’ve never really gotten to know this leather skinned old man, but I’ve known of him all my life.? He recently retired from his job as a ghost tour guide, and now spends his days sitting on the benches along the seawall.? Before his ghost story telling job, he was a crewman on a shrimp boat.? If anyone had seen anything happening in the bay, it would be Cameron.? Putting some light pressure on his elbow, I continue to walk away from the onlookers with him in tow.
"What did you say?"? I ask when we are out of earshot.
"The girl? she was there sitting on the boat’s stern early this morning? before dawn."
"The River Girl.? She was waiting for me."
I don’t know if Cameron is a drinker of not, but he has clearly been out in the sun too much of his life, and now he is mixing his ghost stories with real life.? The River Girl is a ghost story about the child of a lighthouse keeper who drowned.? St. Augustine has been the sight of hundreds of shipwrecks through the ages, and there has been some sort of a lighthouse marking the entrance to the channel’s inlet since the 1500’s.? The current red brick, granite, and iron lighthouse was finished in 1857.? At the time, it was the tallest lighthouse in the United States requiring 227 steps to climb to the observation deck.? The view of the city is magnificent.? Like most everything in St. Augustine, the lighthouse is haunted.? Most of the spirits are drowned sailors, but the story Cameron is referring to occurred back in 1857, when the 10-year-old daughter of the lighthouse keeper was playing in the surf and drowned.?
The lighthouse is currently a fair distance inland, but when it was built, the spit of water known as Salt Run at the lighthouse’s base was the coastline.? While most of the other St. Augustine supernatural spirits stay on land, this River Girl’s ghost wanders among the boats and docks along the Salt Run, which is a half-mile around the bend from the location of the murder.
"Cameron," I firmly ask him, hoping that he remains lucid, "did you see what happened on the boat?"
"No, it was before I came along at about four this morning, but she saw it and was waiting for me."
"How do you know what she saw?"? I ask being swept up in his imagination before I can stop myself.
He taps his head, shrugs his shoulders, and simply says, "I know."
"What did she see?"
"Well, I guess I don’t really know.? A jogger came along and scared her away, but she saw the murder."
"Cameron," I say slowly and precisely, "how do you know it was a murder?"? The nature of the crime in the boat has not been mentioned to the public.
"She told me, of course."
I guide Cameron to a bench in the shade.? As we sit, I continue to question him.? "Try to keep fact from ghost story, and tell me everything from the beginning."
"The beginning? ah? well, that was a long time ago.? I was about fourteen years old when the rocks lining the new channel were laid?"
"No, Cameron, the beginning of today’s events."
But he ignores me and continues without pause.? "That would have been in the late fifties, about 1958.? Anyway, I was fishing from the rocks? that was before it was outlawed.? Most everything fun is eventually outlawed.? And she was playing there too.? Her mother was watching her little brother play in the sand.? She was about 5 years old at the time.? Her name is Cassie May."? Cameron looks to me with a slight smile as he slips from the past to the present tense.? "She has large, dark eyes encircled by dark lashes.? Her face is framed by curls of yellow hair, like a wreath.? She is playing on the new rocks, climbing up and over them.? To her they are mountains.? She is about 10 yards east of me, towards the ocean, when she finds a small sea turtle trapped between in the rocks."? Cameron holds his hands up with his fingers forming a circle about three inches in diameter.? "She holds it up and yells something to me, but I can’t really make out what she is saying.? Without much interest I yell back ‘a turtle? yes.’? Every morning I awake from my nightmare and regret those words."
He stops his story and looks down into his hands.? While this has nothing to do with the murder on the sailboat, this practiced storyteller has my full attention as I wait for him to continue.
He looks back into my eyes as his mind returns from reliving the memory.? "I really shouldn’t have said that.? I should have asked her what she had said before answering her.? I can now only guess that she asked if she should put the turtle back into the water and I had said ‘yes.’"? He pauses again.? "That is when she fell in.? She was trying to put the turtle back into the ocean and slipped on the wet rocks and fell into the channel."? He swallows hard before continuing with his memory, "The tide is running out to sea so fast, and she is far down stream of me when I hear the splash.? In a moment, I realize the horror? she is gone and I jump up to look for her.? She is way down stream now and I can only see a spot of her white dress under the water."? He gazes to the left and points at a spot only he can see.? "I jump over the rocks and into the sea, trying to swim to her.? I’m not a good swimmer, but I search the dark cold water for her.? I swim further and further along as the tide carries me out to sea.? Over and over I dive under the water but find nothing."
The old man’s sad eyes turn back to me.? "I nearly drowned myself, and I gladly would have, if I could have saved her.? Another man in a boat came along and pulled me out."? Cameron sniffles and then continues.? "She is the real River Girl.? She is a grown woman now and comes to me from time to time? tells me things.? I’m the only one she has left now.? That’s why I can never leave St. Augustine."
"She was on the boat when you came along at four this morning?"? I ask before realizing just how insane I have become, questioning a crazy old man about a ghost who witnessed a murder.
"Yes, and that is what made me think it was so odd."
"Odd?? What exactly about seeing a ghost sitting on the stern of a boat was odd?"
"Just exactly that.? She has never been out of the water before.? She is always in the water."
I make a note that Cameron was on the seawall at 4 a.m. and saw nothing from that time on.
The two Sheriff’s patrol boats have finished towing the sailboat to the City Dock and I walk back to join the waiting coroner, Dr. Hartwell.? I start to tell him my observations, but he stops me.? "Let me see it with a fresh blush for myself.? Then we can talk about it."? Dr. Hartwell has substantially more experience with murder than I do.
I watch as his assistant extensively photographs the boat, though he has the advantage of being able to stand on the dock.? Dr. Hartwell examines the neck wound.? He takes the victim’s liver temperature and does some calculations.
"I estimate time of death to be about two o’clock this morning.? The throat slash is one continuous slice from a fairly long knife, at least an eight-inch blade.? Assailant is someone strong and probably experienced, perhaps military.? The vic bled out fast.? Lost consciousness in a few seconds and was dead in less than a minute.? I see no defensive wounds.? There is nothing under the fingernails."? His assistant hands him a portable electronic fingerprint scanner and he checks several of the victim’s fingers before saying, "He’s not in the database.? I think he is Hispanic.? He could be an illegal."
They spend several more minutes double-checking their work, and then place the body in a large black bag.? The victim is loaded in their van and is on his way to the morgue by 11:00 a.m.? While keeping the area around the sailboat taped off, I allow the officers to reopen the pier for the public use.? The local tour boat owners are thrilled that they have missed only one of the day’s tour cruises.? They are probably delighted with the increased tourist traffic the murder as attracted to their businesses.
I spend the next two hours watching the forensic techs scour the boat for clues.? They find the victim’s, and Nelson Hammer’s, fingerprints on the boat along with several other unidentified ones.? The fingerprints of the bloody handprint on the stern match several others inside the boat’s cabin, but these are among the unidentified ones.
Using my phone’s Internet connection, I look up Nelson Hammer and find that he is Dr. Hammer, an oral surgeon in Jacksonville.? Quick examination of his driver’s license photo reveals that he bears no resemblance to the deceased.? However, he could still be a relative.? An additional records search identifies him as the boat’s owner.? I walk over to the Santa Maria restaurant for lunch.? Selecting a booth in the back, I look up Dr. Hammer’s phone number while I wait on my grilled fish sandwich.
"Dr. Hammer’s office," his receptionist says when I call his office number.
"Is the doctor in today?"? I ask.
"Who’s calling please, do you want to make an appointment?"
"So the doctor is in?"? I firmly ask again.
"Yes.? What is the nature of your business?" she sternly asks.
"I’m with the police.? It is imperative that I speak with him immediately."? That got her attention.
"Just a moment," and the on-hold music begins playing in my ear.
Three minutes later, a male voice says, "This is Dr. Hammer, you said you’re with the police?? What has happened?"
"You are Dr. Nelson Hammer?"
"Yes, and you are?"
"I’m Detective Hughes.? Do you own a sailboat called Jaw Cracker?"
"Yes.? Did you find it?"
"Yes," I pause for a moment.? Apparently, he had been expecting a different call from the police, one reporting that his stolen boat had been found.? "Can you tell me how you came to lose it?"? I finish.
"Yes.? It was stolen about a week ago, but I only noticed that it was missing Friday, and that was when I reported it.? You must have the report."
Of course, I didn’t have the report.
"Ah? not with me.? How did you know it was stolen a week ago?"
"I had been planning a weekend cruise, but when I went to the marina Friday the boat was gone," he does not add the ‘of course’ that his voice implies.? "The dock master looked at his security video and saw that it disappeared the previous Friday."
"Yes, and which marina was that?"
"The San Carlos Creek Marina in Jacksonville, on the St. Johns River.? Where did you find the boat?" he asks as exasperation enters his tone.
"In St. Augustine," I continue with a quiet and mater-of-fact tone.? "But we’re going to have to keep it a while.? It was the scene of a murder. ?Do you have any idea who might have taken the boat? a relative maybe?"
There’s a long pause as he digests this shock.? "No," his voice changes to a somber compliant tone.? "I don’t think anyone in my family is missing.? I have no idea who stole the boat," he answered slowly.
"The victim is a male, possibly Hispanic, less than thirty years old, average height, slender, with short dark hair.? Any idea who that might be?"? While I must consider Hammer a suspect, I share the victim’s general description.
"No? I don’t have any idea.? How long will this take?"? He again becomes a bit feisty.
"I don’t know.? I’ll be in touch."? I give him my contact information and end the call.
I take a bite of my sandwich?it’s grouper.? I look up and nod my thanks to the attractive waitress.? Grouper is a tasty and somewhat rare fish these days.? I’m sure not everyone gets grouper.?
The waitress is about my age, with auburn hair and a few extra pounds, which give her some nice curves under her snug fitting jeans.? I am somewhat of a regular here and I do remember having seen her before, but I don’t know her name.? She gives me a wink and then with a grin she turns and walks away with an alluring swagger.? I’ll know her name before I leave.
Finishing my sandwich, I begin to pick at the