Fallen Hero: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
A young treasure diving couple is sadistically murdered in the back country of the Florida Keys—and Jesse McDermitt's friend is the prime suspect. The reclusive federal agent and former combat Marine launches his own investigation in the face of overwhelming evidence. McDermitt is certain of his friend’s innocence. When a third victim's body is discovered lodged among the mangrove roots on Knockemdown Key, the race to stop a serial killer begins. The beautiful Detective Devon Evans will do anything to apprehend the killer before he claims another victim. With shifting political winds, McDermitt and his friends must improvise and adapt to the ever-changing tide. There’s more than meets the eye in this tenth novel in the Jesse McDermitt series!
Release date: December 3, 2016
Publisher: Down Island Press, LLC
Print pages: 388
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Fallen Hero: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
Water stretched to the horizon in every direction, so clear that I could easily see a small crab moving across the sandy bottom, twenty feet away. The shallows in the distance were punctuated here and there by flat, mangrove-covered islands, seeming to float just above the glassy surface. I knew the mirage was caused by the calmness of the water, but it still looked a bit surreal, kinda like a Salvador Dalí painting. The scent of iodine and brine, mixed with the low-tide smell of the exposed flats, filled my nostrils with every breath. Above a few of the larger islands, the fronds of coconut palms hung limp in the warm, still, tropical air, silhouetted against a cobalt-blue sky.
What many parts of the country call fall is my favorite time of year down here. To Keys’ locals, it’s the quiet time between the different tourist seasons. The rowdy college-aged tourists are gone, pulled back to their campuses by schedules they have to keep. The annual influx of snow-birds has yet to arrive and for a few weeks, the water is uncongested and all is quiet in the back country of the Florida Keys.
We just don’t have the changing of four distinct seasons that other parts of the country enjoy. It’s dry from December through April and rainy the rest of the time. It doesn’t rain every day in the rainy season, but it can.
The dry season was still almost two months away. I was in calf-deep water, several hundred feet from my boat. On a day like this, I’d have been surprised if there was anyone within five miles of where I stood. And if there was anyone around, I’d probably have known them. The back country was my backyard.
The warm, slow-moving current gently parted around my ankles. Tiny swirls of water moved slowly away from where my feet were planted, as if the current were agitated or confused by this interruption of its twice-daily commute. My bare feet had been sucked down into the sand by the movement of the water and then covered over by the fine yellow-white crystals.
“Do you see him?” I whispered to Finn, who stood motionless beside me.
At just over a year old, Finn still had many of his puppy mannerisms. Physically, he was a muscular, full-grown, ninety-five-pound mixed-breed yellow lab. His previous owner had told me that he was three-quarters yellow lab and one quarter German short-haired pointer. Sometimes though, I couldn’t help but think that the quarter of him that wasn’t lab was actually clownfish.
He looked up at me for a moment and whined, before returning his gaze to the horizon. Both of us scanned the water ahead for any movement.
It was so quiet and still here, miles from anywhere, that I heard the gentle dripping sound, and again looked down at Finn. His left paw was raised out of the water, his body rigid, his eyes locked on something off to the right.
Okay, so maybe he is part pointer.
I followed his gaze out over the water, but at first I didn’t see anything. Then, almost imperceptibly, a slight shadow moved. It appeared like a ghostly gray apparition in the water, about forty feet away. I guess that’s where the “gray ghost” nickname comes from.
Bonefish came to this sandy flat to feed when the tide was falling, and they were one of the hardest fish to catch, for a number of reasons. We’d seen this particular guy on three outings now, and each time we saw him he just seemed to vanish in the gin-clear water. He was one of the biggest bones I’d ever seen—and whenever he was there, the other fish left. The times Finn and I had fished there and not seen a single fish, we agreed the big guy was there, but he was just so good at concealment that neither of us could detect him.
I knew a thing or two about cover and concealment. As a Marine sniper instructor, it had been my job to teach Marines how not to be seen, to stay alive. That seemed like a lifetime ago, though it had been only nine years.
Again, the shadow evaporated.
It reappeared for a moment, a good twenty feet from where I’d been looking; I began casting ahead of it, trying to anticipate which way he might go. Before my third whip of the lightweight fly rod, the great bonefish had disappeared again. I continued the whipping motion, keeping the fly in the air and not letting it touch the water, hoping he’d reappear. He didn’t.
Finn whined again; when I looked at him, he had his head cocked to the side, which I’d come to understand was his way of asking a question.
“I don’t know where he went, buddy.” That seemed to satisfy Finn’s curiosity and he went back to scanning the water around us.
I live in the Content Keys, on a little island that’s barely two acres at high tide. It sits at the western end of Harbor Channel, where the channel turns south and disappears into a maze of flats and cuts that only those who know the water can navigate.
The sand flat we were fishing is just north of Crane Key and Raccoon Key, both uninhabited. Slightly deeper water can be found in Cudjoe Basin to the west, and my island lies about four miles to the east. At low tide, I can walk home.
To get to either my house or this flat, you have to first know where they are and then know how to get out there. The old joke about “you can’t get there from here” is apropos for the back country. Sure, it looks like water everywhere, but the unmarked deeper cuts are the only place a boat can go and you have to have a boat to get out here. And not just any boat—it has to be a shallow draft boat. Or you have to come down Harbor Channel, in full view of my island for several miles.
There are no roads or bridges up in the back country. The islands all around look much the same as they did when early Spanish explorers first found them and deemed los cayos unworthy of settlement. They also determined that the waters around the Keys, known collectively as Los Martires, were too treacherous to sail. So, for the most part, they remained uninhabited for a couple hundred years after their so-called discovery—well, apart from the occasional Indian visitors who had been coming here for centuries, and a few piratical attempts to settle.
I let the fly drop into the water, dejected once again. Bonefish aren’t any good as a food fish, but they are tremendously exciting to catch, regardless of size. Their fighting ability is on par with fish twice their size, and they’re one of the smartest fish I’ve ever stalked. The inside of a bonefish’s mouth is bony, and you can’t set a hook. A barbed hook is useless for bonefish. The only way you can catch one is by keeping constant tension on the line and the point of the hook against his bony palate. If he charges toward you, and you’re not ready for it, the line will go slack and the hook will simply fall out of his mouth.
“He wins again,” I said to Finn, as I reeled in the line. “It’s getting late anyway, close to beer-thirty. Why don’t we get back to the boat?”
Finn barked once, his big tail wagging from side to side. I hooked the fly in one of the rod’s eyes, and together we started walking back through the shallow water toward my boat, swinging on its anchor line in about two feet of water almost a quarter mile away.
Finn beat me to the boat, scaring a couple of gulls, who’d chosen my T-top for a perch, into noisy flight. Finn’s feet barely touched the bottom, so he half swam and half lunged to the stern, where he scrambled up the “doggy ladder” a friend had built for me, and over the transom.
Just as I pushed myself up onto the gunwale, I heard a gunshot ring out. I immediately tumbled ungracefully forward into the cockpit of my little Grady-White, grabbing Finn and pulling him down. I’ve heard enough gunshots that I wasn’t confused that it might be a car backfiring, or kids playing with firecrackers. Besides, the nearest car was a good ten miles away and the only kids were the two on my island.
I reached up and opened the storage box under the seat. Feeling inside, I pulled out my Sig Sauer P226, stripping it from its holster and thumbing the hammer back. I didn’t need to check if there was a round in the chamber.
The gunshot had come from over my shoulder, to the northwest. It sounded like it was a long way off, but the only thing out there is Sawyer Key, Snipe Key, and a few smaller islands, all uninhabited. I raised my head over the gunwale and looked around carefully. Seeing nothing but the islands that lay nearly a mile away, I raised myself to a crouch and went to the side box of the console for my binoculars.
Scanning the horizon to the northwest, I couldn’t see anything. Sound travels really well over water, and the gunshot might have been five miles away or it might have been ten. There wasn’t another sound, except the tiny waves rippling against the hull and water dripping from my body to the deck.
Gunshots weren’t normal out here in the back-country, but they weren’t unheard of either. Lots of valid reasons to shoot out there; I did it all the time.
Lots of less than valid reasons, as well.
Finn put his feet up on the gunwale, looking over the side of the boat toward the northwest. “You heard it, too?”
The big yellow dog glanced at me with amber eyes, made a motion with his tail that might have been a partial wag, then looked back to the northwest, his ears lifted and cocked forward.
“You’re still hearing something, aren’t you?” I said.
Finn whined once, never moving his head or eyes. Whatever it was out there, rednecks blowing off steam or a drug deal gone south, it was completely quiet now—at least to my ears it was. Obviously, Finn could still hear something. I put the binos away, decocked the Sig, and put it back in the holster and then back into the rear-facing storage box.
Whatever it was, it was none of my business. I glanced at the compass and noted the direction that Finn was intently staring. Whoever it was out there, they were a long way out in the Gulf, at a heading of about three-hundred-twenty-degrees, from where we were near Crane Key. I started the engine and went forward to pull the hook. Finn barked at me once; I turned and saw that cocked-head, questioning look on his face.
“Not my circus, buddy,” I said, stowing the anchor. “Not my monkeys.”
Working the southeast quadrant of a fifty-foot grid of red-and-white interconnecting pipe, Jenny wondered again how she’d gotten herself roped into this job. Not that it was a bad gig—the money was good—but the days were super long.
Up before the sun every day, she then had an hour-long ride in a slow boat to the spot she and James had been working for three weeks now. One of them was in the water not long after first light, and they’d alternated throughout the day for the last twenty straight days: one of them on the boat, off-gassing what little residual nitrogen their bodies absorbed, while the other worked on the bottom.
The dives were shallow, meaning nearly an hour of bottom time. Then an hour surface interval, while the other was in the water. Six dives in a day weren’t a problem, physically, but the repetition very quickly became boring. When one of them was on the surface, they’d refill their scuba tank from the onboard compressor and keep an eye on the other diver in the water. Whoever was in the water last would be on the boat first the following day.
At first it had sounded exciting—even romantic, in a swashbuckling kind of way. James wasn’t unattractive, and he was quite charming. The fact that they were looking for a lost treasure that was reportedly worth millions of dollars certainly added to the excitement level.
James was all business, though. Over six feet tall and a trim but muscular two hundred pounds, with sandy hair and a bushy mustache, he had a laid-back approach to most things most of the time. He was an easy guy to like and Jenny had bought a couple of new bikinis to entice him. But on the water it was all about the job for him.
At twenty-seven, Jenny could pretty much have had her choice of guys. She took good care of herself, and it showed. Her long light-brown hair had turned golden blond in the tropical sun, and her skin was deeply tanned by the same sun. Tall and slim, with long legs and a shapely figure, she turned men’s heads wherever she went.
The man who’d hired James rarely joined them on the dives, preferring to stay in Key West, researching the wreck or working at his regular job. Nearly everyone in Key West had more than one job. Jenny didn’t know him personally, but knew who he was and knew that he took good care of his friends.
It hadn’t taken long for the excitement of the search for sunken Spanish treasure to turn into a monotonous j-o-b, the very thing she’d come to Key West to get away from in the first place—well, that and a verbally abusive boyfriend.
Though it was early fall and the days were getting shorter, there were still a good thirteen hours of daylight each day. That, combined with the twice daily boat trip, meant a laborious and boring fifteen-hour day. To date, they’d found some nails, a few beer cans, tons of fishing tackle, and a rusty New Jersey license plate. Considering they were nearly fifteen miles from the nearest road, she wondered how the plate had arrived there.
The man financing the search was certain this new spot was the one that would finally make them rich. He’d hired James at a fixed daily rate for both boat and crew, with a percentage of the cut, when the treasure was found. James’s crewman had disappeared on him two days before James accepted the job—also a common occurrence with the Key West work force. Desperate for someone reliable, he’d found Jenny through a recommendation from a friend.
Back home in Galveston, Jenny had worked for an accounting firm, just one of dozens of bean counters employed by the company. She’d paid her way through college at Texas A&M by working nights as a bartender. Bored with the daily grind after only two years, she loaded a few meager possessions into her ten-year-old Nissan and drove to Key West in three days. She’d quickly found work as a bartender at the outdoor Tiki bar at the DoubleTree Resort, and soon added a second job as bartender at The Rum Bar in Old Town.
Jenny was eager for extra cash, and the hundred and fifty per day James said he could pay was very tempting. Tourist season had dried up, and she hadn’t been getting a lot of shifts at either job. She had no commercial diving experience, and explained that when James had contacted her about the job.
At first James was skeptical about hiring her. He wanted a more experienced commercial diver. She explained that her dad was a commercial diver on the oil platforms in the Gulf, and she’d been certified as a sports diver before she’d even learned to drive a car. She loved the sport and had continued taking classes, working her way up to divemaster and becoming certified in a number of specialties, including mixed gas diving and equipment repair. Once James learned that, he made her an offer and she told both her employers she was taking some time off and they could give her shifts to the other girls.
Throughout the last two days, Jenny and James had moved and reassembled the red and white pipe grid from its previous location, just fifty feet away. They were now doing a preliminary survey of each individual two-foot square of the intersecting grid. First, each grid had to be digitally photographed with a high-resolution dive camera. Six hundred and twenty-five individual grids, each with a corresponding digital image, always with north at the top of each image.
How can this possibly get any more boring? Jenny thought, hovering just above the next grid. James barely seemed to notice her when they were on the boat, and by the end of the day they were both too exhausted to care. Maybe he’s gay, she thought.
A faint buzzing sound caught Jenny’s attention as she snapped the picture and moved very carefully to her right for the next one. Maintaining neutral buoyancy in the water was critical; any sand or silt she kicked up would have to settle before she could take the next picture. Tiny particles suspended in the water would cause backscatter on the image, appearing huge from the camera’s flash. She wore a belt around her narrow waist, with eight pounds of lead in a pouch at the small of her back. With her buoyancy compensator half-inflated, she was able to move easily while maintaining a partially upright position.
The buzzing grew louder and Jenny recognized it as the sound of an outboard engine. They heard them all the time; boats were always coming and going and the buzzing sound carried a long way under water. Occasionally, the project’s financier came out on his own boat to check their progress, but that was rare. As the sound grew closer, Jenny took the picture and moved carefully to the next grid. The pitch of the outboard changed, as the boat slowed, approaching James’s big workboat.
Must be the money man, Jenny thought. Or a Coast Guard skiff, come to harass us.
Hovering over the next grid, Jenny paused and looked up. The water was clear enough that she could easily make out the underside of James’s workboat, and the smaller boat as it came alongside.
Not the Coast Guard, she thought. Their boats were bigger and she imagined the bottoms were just as clean as the rest of their equipment. The boat pulling alongside looked to be about the same size as the boss’s, but she’d been the one out of the water the two times he’d visited, so she had no idea if the dirty, barnacle-covered hull above her was his or somebody else’s.
Assuming it was him, Jenny went back to work, taking the next picture and moving slowly to the next grid. The man had sunk an awful lot of money into this project already, with absolutely nothing to show for it. Last week, when they’d found the nails, they’d thought the discovery might be significant. The nails had been scattered over an area covering more than two dozen grid squares.
But the nails had turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of fifty-year-old carpentry nails, not the seventeenth century shipbuilding nails they’d all hoped they were. Probably a bucket of nails that fell off a passing workboat.
Jenny was slowly moving to the next grid when she heard a splash and noticed a shadow pass over her. She started to turn and look up, and something hit her hard in the middle of her lower back and tugged viciously at her weight belt, yanking her upward.
Her first thought was that she’d been surprised by a shark. They’d seen quite a few over the last three weeks. She immediately began twisting her body to get free, thankful the shark had grabbed the single pouch full of tiny lead shot.
But suddenly her mask was violently ripped from her face, a clump of hair from her right temple going with it. Something wrapped around the outside of both her thighs and locked around her lower legs, as a large mass pressed against her bottom.
The man’s legs, wrapped around hers like a boa constrictor, prevented Jenny from kicking with her fins. She grabbed wildly for her second stage, which should be dangling on her right side, but it wasn’t there.
The man’s arms encircled her, trapping her right arm in a tight grasp, leaving only her left hand, flailing uselessly. The bulk of Jenny’s scuba tank prevented the man’s arms from reaching all the way around and locking together for a full bear hug. As usual, Jenny was wearing only a bikini, since the ninety-degree water was more than warm enough to work without a wetsuit. The man’s large hands instead grabbed both her breasts, the fingers sinking deeply into the tender flesh; pain shot through her body.
Slashing with her left hand, Jenny pawed at the water, trying to get free. But the man was too strong, and he held her breasts in a vice-like grip and began thrusting against her. She could feel the bulge in his groin as he drove himself into her, using her own legs for leverage.
Reaching back as far as she could with her free hand, she tried to grab the man’s mask, but there wasn’t one on his face. When she tried to gouge at his eyes, he twisted his head and she raked her long nails across his cheek.
With her right arm trapped, she could grab her octopus, the backup second stage of her regulator, though it did little good with her arm trapped. She pushed the button on the front of it anyway, releasing a purge of air in a free flow.
This seemed to distract the man for a moment, but then he squeezed harder. Jenny distinctly heard the cracking sound when her right arm broke, and a sharp pain shot up her arm. She heard the muffled sound of the man laughing, as he began thrusting his pelvis against her again.
Through her distorted vision, she made out a large hand as it flashed in front of her. The second stage of her regulator was yanked violently from her mouth and Jenny went into full panic mode, thrashing wildly and struggling to get to the surface.
A lucid part of her mind grasped that this wasn’t a sexual act. She wasn’t being raped by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She felt a pull on her regulator hose, where it was attached to her buoyancy compensator. Too late, Jenny realized that the man attacking her wasn’t wearing his own scuba gear, but was now breathing from her second stage. He also wasn’t wearing fins, but was instead using his legs to power her fins, driving both of them toward the bottom.
Forced downward through the grid of interconnecting pipes, Jenny impacted the rough, sandy bottom face first, forcing her lower jaw open and driving sand into her mouth. She pushed against the bottom with her one free hand, again twisting her body and gyrating wildly in a last-ditch effort to get free, each movement causing excruciating pain in her broken right arm. She managed to push hard enough against the bottom to cause them both to slowly rise up out of the grid.
The man continued thrusting his groin against her ass and she could feel him growing larger, becoming aroused by her twisting movements and his hands on her breasts. Her lungs burned with the need for air as her face was again slammed into the bottom. This time, it wasn’t the coarse, but yielding sand. The man had driven her face into a small piece of rough brain coral.
The jagged, dome-shaped coral didn’t yield; instead, it gouged out chunks of flesh from her cheek. The wounds burned, competing in intensity with the other pain the man was inflicting. He continued levering her legs, spreading them apart. His swimsuit did little to hide his now hard manhood pressed against her. His hands pawed at her breasts, pulling her bikini top up and allowing him to grip her soft flesh even tighter.
Her face again buried in the sand, she felt the man release his grip with his right hand, but keep his grip on her left breast, squeezing so hard she thought she would scream.
Roughly, he continued thrusting with wild abandon. His free hand grabbed her hair and yanked her face up out of the grid. Jenny’s neck was strained backward, and the regulator’s first stage tore another hunk of flesh and hair from her scalp.
With her body bent backwards, the man seized the dump valve at the top of her BC and pulled it, releasing all the air from her compensator.
With no air in the BC, the heavy lead weights pulled Jenny to the bottom, the man riding her down as a gray haze seemed to cloud her vision. Her body fell over one of the pipes, and the man grabbed her hair at the back of her skull, smashing her face into the bottom over and over, showing no mercy at all. Her whole body was in agony as he yanked her head sideways and shoved it down hard to the bottom, his hand planted firmly against the side of her face.
As blackness descended over her mind, Jenny saw James next to her. He had a purplish hole just above his right eye, oozing blood. Somewhere in the back of Jenny’s mind, she knew there was no way of escaping. As the man continued to bash her head against the rocks and coral on the bottom, she took a sharp breath, inhaling water, sand, and bits of seagrass. As she did so, a rough hand pawed at the bottom of her bikini, grabbing it and ripping it away, the cloth cutting deep into the tender skin of her inner thighs before breaking.
The pain she felt from the numerous gashes on her cheek and head, the broken bone in her right arm, and the vice-like grip kneading and twisting her breast was nothing like the agony in her lungs as seawater flooded them.
The pain lasted only a second. Jenny convulsed once as everything went black, then once more as the life force left her body. Her attacker continued to slam her face against the rough seabed, then slowed his merciless treatment, taking his time now that her body had stopped twitching. Her blood mixed with the silt that enveloped them both.
When he was finished, hoping to stage things to look like something else, he inflated Jenny’s BC so he could drag both corpses up to the boat. There, he hooked a tether to one body and let the other drift away.
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