BLACK WATER

Black Water

This novel is the second one in the Mira Morales series, and followed The Hanged Man. It was originally published by Kensington Books in 2003 and is now back as an e-book. Exclusively at Amazon: $3.99.

 Chapter One

The fading afternoon light clung to the western horizon like blood to cloth. Mira Morales snapped two more photos of her daughter, a silhouette against the exquisite June light, as she moved along the beach, col­lecting another bucket of shells to take home.

“Hey, Annie,” she called. “Let’s start packing up the boat.”

“Five more minutes, Mom,” Annie called back.

Five more minutes, not right now, I’m not ready yet: the litanies of a thirteen-year-old always smacked of pro­crastination. But they had fifteen miles of open water to cross between Little Horse Key, an uninhabited spit of land in the Gulf of Mexico where they had spent the day, and Tango Key, where they lived. The thought of crossing it in the dark, in a puny skiff with an even punier outboard motor, made Mira distinctly uncomfortable.

She moved quickly, gathering up towels, umbrellas, suntan lotion, paperbacks, and the rest of the stuff strewn around the cooler and the boat. It looked as if they had come for several weeks rather than a day. She doubted she would ever master the art of packing lightly. But how could she possibly leave home without plenty of bottled water, food, snacks, her cell phone and Pocket PC? And it wasn’t possible to go to the beach without something to read, preferably a choice of books from the dozens of advance reading copies that her bookstore got every week. She’d also brought along a new tarot deck that a distributor had sent her, this one with a motif from Lord of the Rings. The digital camera that Shep had given her last Christmas had come with her, too.

Annie bounded across the sand to show Mira the shells she’d collected, her exuberance over something so simple a refreshing change from the glumness that had shadowed her for the past year. Although she’d made a few friends since they’d moved to Tango three years ago, she didn’t have a single close friend, no one who called her up every night to gossip or with whom she could share her deepest secrets. At thirteen, the ab­sence of a close friend left a mighty big void.

The few times Mira had tried to tune in on Annie, she couldn’t get beyond the waves of utter loneliness and isolation. Years ago, Mira’s grandmother, Nadine, had warned her never to read someone she loved be­cause the truth would shock her. In our heart of hearts, most of us are strangers to each other. At the time, Mira con­sidered the remark to be cynical. Now she realized that what Nadine had really been saying was that some things had to be lived through alone. Mira could be there for Annie, supportive and offering guidance, but she couldn’t banish her daughter’s pain. She couldn’t live adolescence for her. All of which was why she had spent a day on a little island, swimming and sunbathing with her daughter. Mom, the substitute companion.

“I saw a lot of dead crabs on the beach, Mom.” Annie poured her newest shells into a smaller cooler. “You think it has something to do with that black water mass out there?”

“I doubt it. The mass is fifty miles offshore.”

The mass that Annie referred to had been reported about eight months ago by commercial fishermen. They described it as a large area of blackish-colored water with gelatinous globs floating on the surface of it. Fishermen who had been plying the gulf waters for fifty years claimed they had never seen anything like it. Although the mass didn’t leave a trail of dead fish, as red tide did, no live fish were found in the black waters, either. Initially, satellite photos showed that the black waters covered a 750-square-mile area roughly the size of Lake Okeechobee.

Even though the mass had started breaking up into smaller pieces, environmentalists were concerned about its impact on marine life and on the coral reef, the only living barrier reef in the U.S. Marine biologists from all over Florida had been taking samples of the stuff ever since it appeared and had a host of theories.

One theory said that the black water phenomenon was due to pollutants. Other theories attributed it to some sort of underwater explosion of algae or plankton, to a spike in ocean temperatures or salinity, or to a runoff of nitrogen from sugarcane fields in South Florida. But so far, no one had determined exactly what it was or what had caused it.

“Last week it was fifty miles offshore,” Annie said. “On the news this morning, I heard the biggest piece of it is just a few miles south of here.”

When Annie spoke with such authority, she re­minded Mira of her father, the same passion in her dark eyes, the same flare to her nostrils, that proud lift to her chin. She was an extraordinarily pretty girl—not that Annie believed it—with her Cuban father’s beautiful skin and high cheekbones. Tom was killed on Annie’s third birthday, and at moments like this Mira ached inside for the life that she, Tom, and Annie would never have together.

Get over it and move on, she thought. It happened ten years ago.

“There haven’t been any reports of dead fish in that mass,” Mira said. “Hey, get on the other side of the boat so I can snap one more picture of you before we leave.”

“You know, it’s okay if it’s dark when we head back to Tango, Mom. We’re not going to capsize and drown or anything.”

“I didn’t say we were.”

“But that’s what you’re thinking.”

Annie flashed a mischievous grin and sprang over the skiff. She thrust out her right hip, planted one hand against it, and with the other hand flicked her long, dark hair off her shoulders, and Mira snapped a couple of pictures. Her daughter always joked that Mira’s fear of being on the water after dark probably went back to a life in which she’d drowned at night. Mira usually laughed when she said it, but suspected she was probably right. One of the problems with rais­ing an intuitive daughter was that Annie’s intuition often surpassed her own.

For generations back, all of the firstborn women in the family had been born with the Sight. Mira rarely re­ferred to it that way out loud because it sounded so antiquated. But it was the best word to describe an abil­ity that had been a part of her life as far back as she remembered. Because of it, she had foreseen her hus­band’s death several years before it had happened. The Sight hadn’t prevented Tom’s murder, but five years after it had happened, it had enabled her to pro­vide Wayne Sheppard, who was then a Fort Lauderdale cop, with enough clues about the killer to find him. The ability was her livelihood, her passion, her great­est curse, and her most profound gift. It was as intrinsic to who she was as her own flesh and blood. But there were many times when the ability spoke to her that she wished it would shut up and leave her alone. Like right now.

For several moments, she had been aware of a grow­ing discomfort just below her sternum, an intense heat that spread like melting wax. When she focused on the feeling to clarify it, the heat deepened, but no images came to mind. Maybe it was just indigestion from all the junk food she and Annie had consumed on the beach.

“Okay, now let me get some pictures of you, Mom.”

They traded places and while Annie was deciding whether to crouch or to frame the photos vertically or horizontally, Mira punched out Shep’s cell number. His cell was always on. It was the only phone he owned.

“Agent Sheppard.”

“Psychic Morales.”

He laughed. “Are you two on your way back?”

“In a few minutes. We’re taking some more pictures. Where’re you?”

“Nadine and I are sitting in the kitchen, having a beer. She’s got a shrimp casserole in the oven.”

“We should be there in under an hour.”

“You feel like taking in a movie?”

“Only if I get to eat first. What’d you have in mind?”

“A video at my place.”

“Sounds good.”

A night alone with Sheppard sounded very good. She couldn’t have said that two years ago. Shortly after the end of the investigation that had brought them together, Sheppard had inherited money from an aunt, quit his job at the sheriff’s department, and had taken off for six months, satisfying a deep itch to travel. When he’d returned, she was living on Tango and their relationship had been erratic, unsettled, and complicated by distance. He was trying to figure out the next step in his life and she was trying to figure out if he would fit into her life at all. Then he had gotten a job offer from his former boss at the FBI, where he had worked for five years before he’d joined the Broward County Sheriffs Department. So Sheppard had joined the bureau for the second time, moved to Tango, and their relationship had flourished ever since.

“Oh, Nadine says to tell you that Annie got a call from that girl down the street,” Sheppard went on. “She wants to know if Annie can spend the night.”

“Hey, Annie,” Mira said, covering the mouthpiece. “Christina called and wants to know if you can spend the night.”

If she was hoping the news would cheer Annie up, she’d been grossly mistaken. Her daughter shrugged­ whatever—which perfectly expressed her angst these days.

“Christina’s a pain in the butt, Mom.”

“I take it that’s a no.”

“I’ll call her when I get home. C’mon, move a little to the left.”

“Got to run. Georgia O’Keefe is going to take a pic­ture of me. We’ll see you in a while,” Mira said to Sheppard.

“Hey, tell Annie she’s got three cats who love her,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s much comfort right now, but I’ll pass on the message. See you soon.”

She disconnected and Annie said, “Okay, hand on your hip.”

Mira put her hand on her hip and Annie took a cou­ple of photos. “So is dinner on?”

“Shrimp casserole.”

Annie wrinkled her nose. “I hate shrimp, Mom.”

“You can have salad and cold chicken.”

Annie, Little Ms. Picky. She hated shrimp, but loved fish. She had never eaten a hamburger or had a soft drink, but she consumed Dannon coffee yogurt with all the relish of a true caffeine addict.

“Uh, Mom?” Annie said, lowering the camera. “There’s a guy coming up the beach.”

Mira glanced around, shading her eyes against the glare of the setting sun. The man was pulling a small boat onto the sand and seemed to be struggling with it. She saw that one of his arms was in a cast. He crouched over the outboard engine and banged on it with something, the clatter echoing along the beach. “If he needs help, he’ll ask. C’mon, let’s get our stuff together, hon. We need to get going.”

They started loading their belongings in the boat. The sun shimmered as it began its descent into the gulf, its light burning against the surface of the water. A slight breeze had risen, the air swelled with the scent of salt and sand, a wilderness of water. Just offshore, a school of fish leaped up, a glistening silver mass in the light, then splashed down again. Mira realized the clatter had stopped and looked down the beach again. The man was trudging through the sand and now he waved.

“Hey, hello,” he called. “My engine conked out. Can you give me a hand?”

Mira waved back. She didn’t want to be held up any longer, but she couldn’t refuse to help someone stranded out here, either. “Let’s see what this guy needs.” She walked away from her boat to meet the man halfway.

The discomfort she’d felt earlier just below her ster­num now returned. She pressed two fingers against it, rubbing gently. It definitely wasn’t indigestion. This feeling, she thought, was all about her fear of getting caught out on the water in the dark, which now looked like a distinct possibility.

“I’m really sorry to intrude like this,” the man said, and waved his cast at his boat. A forearm cast. “The damn engine died on me about three hundred yards from shore and I don’t have any tools or a cell phone.”

“I’ve got a few tools. You’re welcome to look through them.”

“Thanks so much. The idea of having to row fifteen miles to shore, in the dark, isn’t especially appealing.”

She smiled. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

He was roguishly handsome, with a weathered face that said he spent a lot of time in the sun, and eyes the same color as the water at dusk, lead ringed with a dark blue. The sun had streaked his hair blond and he kept drawing his fingers through it as if to get rid of the salt and the elements. He carried a backpack slung over his right shoulder.

“I started having trouble with the engine when I was fishing. It kept sputtering. I should’ve turned back then, I guess.”

They were walking toward Annie, who waited by the boat. “You live on Tango?” she asked.

“Key West. You?”

“Tango.”

“You just out here boating?”

“My daughter and I came out here for the day.”

“My name’s Pete,” he said.

“I’m Mira. That’s Annie.”

“Hi,” Annie said. “Mom, you’ve got to lift this cooler into the boat. It’s too heavy for me.”

“Yeah, okay. Let me dig out the tools for Pete. He’s having engine problems.”

She flipped open the lid on the fishing tackle box and brought out a pack of tools. “I hope there’s some­thing in there you can use. Can I call someone for you?”

“I hate to bother friends.” He opened the pack of tools, nodding to himself. “It’s a long way out here.”

The discomfort she’d been feeling now exploded into a full-blown pain that caused her to catch her breath. “Keep the tools, Pete. We need to shove off and get back across the water before it’s completely dark. You sure you don’t want me to call someone en route?”

“Thanks, I’m sure.”

Then he raised his eyes from the tools and a second explosion of pain nearly drove to her to her knees. In an instant of utter horror, she realized that he was the source of the pain. She took a step back, tried to smile, to hide her terror.

“Good luck. Grab the rope, Annie. I’ll get the coo—”

He rose up, still smiling, and slammed his cast against the side of her head. Agony detonated in her bones, stars blew up in her eyes, blood pounded in her ears. She stumbled sideways, shaking her head to clear it, the metallic taste of blood filling her mouth, and shrieked, “Run, Annie, ru—”

The second blow struck her in the back of the head. She heard the cast cracking, heard Annie screaming. The ocean thundered in her skull. Even as she was top­pling forward, her arms shooting out to break her fall, her vision darkening, he threw himself into her and she crashed to the beach.

Sand flew up her nostrils, got sucked into her mouth. She spat and rolled onto her back, jackknifed her legs, and her bare feet sank into his stomach. He staggered, but didn’t fall. As she scrambled to her feet, the beach, the light, the water, everything rolled to the right. She hurled herself at him, but she was so clumsy, so weak, that he merely leaped to the left and she lurched for­ward like a drunk, her vision swimming with blackness.

Then he hit her again. As she went down, she knew she would be unconscious before she struck the ground.

 

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