On Grassy Key, things aren’t as idyllic as they seem. The quiet, sleepy community has been awakened. A young woman with strong ties to the community is missing.
A local craftsman, the last person to see the girl, is questioned and released. The girl’s friends are interviewed. Nobody knows what happened to Cobie, except that she left for work one day and didn’t arrive. The only lead is the girl’s car, parked where she worked. But it provides no clues and nobody saw anything.
Days go by. Then weeks. The case grows cold.
The employer of the girl’s mother knows Jesse McDermitt, a retired Marine and reputed government spook. Jesse leans on people the way only he can and soon finds there is a lot more to the abduction than anyone knew.
Does he find the missing girl? Does he survive what he uncovers? Find out in this 19th novel in Wayne Stinnett’s wildly popular Jesse McDermitt Caribbean Adventure Series.
Release date: December 21, 2020
Publisher: Down Island Press; 1st edition
Print pages: 256
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Rising Moon: A Jesse McDermitt Novel
The screen door slammed behind her as Cobie rushed down the steps of her mom’s mobile home. She took them two at a time, then sprinted to her little car. She was almost late for work and needed to make a stop on the way there.
Her mother’s trailer, like many others in the park, had seen better days. But it had weathered two big hurricanes in Cobie’s lifetime, both passing close enough to the small island of Grassy Key to cause a lot of damage. Their trailer had survived, though, one of the few still remaining in the Florida Keys.
In 2005, Hurricane Wilma had passed fifty miles to the north. Cobie was just a toddler then. The storm was a Cat-3, spinning crazily out over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It pushed winds from the northwest and piled water up against the Gulf side of the low-lying key. Wind-driven waves had lapped at the trailer door and they’d lost their porch awning. But the trailer had held fast with a dozen hurricane straps attached to anchors her father had labored to drive into the limestone bedrock by hand.
The hurricane had come just five months before her daddy was killed in a car crash.
He was coming home late from a bar down on Big Pine Key, where he played on a pool team. Witnesses said he was driving fast and erratically, almost hitting another car head-on. He’d swerved and then overcorrected, hitting the barricade and flying over it into the ocean. They found his car days later, his body still inside. Everyone thought her father had been drunk, but Momma swore that he didn’t drink. Later, the autopsy showed she was right. He’d had a heart attack, but the cause of death was drowning.
She remembered how scared she’d been during the storm, but little of the details of her father’s accident. Momma hadn’t shared that information with her until she was much older.
Three years ago, Hurricane Irma had made landfall just down island, on Cudjoe Key. It was a big one, a Category 4 storm, sending powerful winds and torrential rain through their neighborhood, which was thirty-five miles away. The trailer park itself was on the Gulf side of the Overseas Highway and the wind had been mostly from the south, so the park was slightly sheltered from the wind by the raised roadbed. The ocean side flooded, and some waves even crested the highway, flooding the park. The wind blew boats and cars around, some crashing into neighbors’ trailers.
They hadn’t evacuated for either storm. The first, because Daddy was a Conch and stubborn about such things. Momma would have taken them away before Irma, but they had nowhere to go and no money to get there.
“What time do you get off work?” Cobie’s mom called from the door.
Donna Murphy was an attractive woman in her late thirties. She was lean and short in stature, like Cobie. They often wore each other’s clothes. Her hair, also like Cobie’s, was the color of wheat, streaked with lighter colors from the sun. Her face was beginning to show lines, mostly from worry about Cobie and their future. Hard times seemed to follow Donna like a dark cloud.
“Three,” Cobie yelled back, as she yanked open the car’s door. “A bunch of us are going to Cable Park after.”
Cobie stepped back, dodging most of the heat that came boiling out of her car. Though it was only a few days until Thanksgiving, it was still ridiculously hot, and her blue car seemed to absorb it.
Cobie got in, leaned across the seat, and rolled down the passenger-side window before winding down her own. The old Fiesta lacked a lot of the things some of her friends’ cars had, like electric windows and air conditioning, but it ran forever on ten dollars’ of gas, didn’t cost much to buy, and started. Most of the time.
A typical Keys car.
Her mom approached and leaned on the doorframe. She instantly jumped back, rubbing her forearm. “The park closes at sunset, Cobie.”
“That’ll give me almost three hours to try out my new board,” Cobie responded. “You working today?”
“This afternoon, in the Gift Shop.”
“Tell Manny and the gang I said hi,” Cobie offered, turning the key with a silent prayer. The little blue car started. “I really gotta run, Mom. I’m late and I have to stop at Ty’s and pick up my new board. He just texted me and said I could pick it up this afternoon.” She bounced in her seat and clapped her hands. “But I can’t wait to see it and try it out.”
“Don’t forget,” Donna said, as Cobie shifted to reverse, “your Uncle Rob and Gina are arriving this evening. They should be here by eight o’clock.”
How could she forget? Her mom had told her every day for two weeks that her uncle, a musician, was driving his RV down with his girlfriend for a few weeks and staying at a nearby campground through Thanksgiving weekend.
“I’ll be home before then,” Cobie said, backing out into the street.
She waved at her mom and drove off. Her job at Kmart was just a ten-minute drive and she had fifteen to get there. If Ty was home, she’d stop on the way. He’d texted her that her board was ready, so why wait till after work?
Cobie and her friends knew one another’s schedules. There were only a handful of kids her age on Grassy Key—most of her friends lived in Marathon, as did Ty. He was older and a little odd, but because he made wakeboards and surfboards, he was within her circle of friends.
Traffic was light when she turned south on Overseas Highway, toward town. She saw a friend riding the opposite way on the bike path and honked the anemic-sounding horn. Trish waved and Cobie waved back.
A few minutes later, she turned onto a street on the ocean side, made a quick right and then another left and saw Ty’s van in his driveway. There was another car parked behind it, so she just pulled over under a gumbo limbo tree at the edge of an empty lot next door. She would only be there for a minute.
Ty had a little shop behind his house on the corner where he made custom boards; wakeboards mostly, but he also made kiteboards, even surfboards. You’d have to go way up the coast to surf, unless there was a storm out on the Gulf Stream. Whatever kind of board anyone wanted, Ty was the guy.
Cobie didn’t recognize the Nissan parked behind Ty’s old VW van, but it was new and not from the area. Having grown up on Grassy Key, she knew every car on the island and could always spot a friend in a long line of tourists’ cars. The black GT-R sportscar with dark windows stuck out. But Cobie knew that people came from all up and down the Keys to get one of Ty’s boards, so a strange car didn’t seem unusual to her.
Ty was rarely in his house, except to eat or sleep. His shop was air-conditioned and he had plenty of work to keep him out there from sunrise to well past sunset. He had a stereo system in his shop, as well as a refrigerator. Though she and most of her friends were still in high school, Ty allowed them to sneak a beer from the fridge once in a while. He was older, almost thirty. He even smoked weed with one or two, but Cobie never tried it or the beer.
Knowing he was most likely in the shop, Cobie went around the side of the house, following the well-worn path. As she approached the shop’s door, she could hear the voices of Ty and another man coming from inside, but not what they were saying.
Without knocking, she turned the knob and walked in. Ty and the other man looked up from Ty’s small desk. Cobie didn’t recognize him.
On the desk was the digital scale Ty used to mix epoxies, resins, and powders. A pile of blueish-white powder sat on the scale.
“Hey, Ty,” Cobie said, smiling brightly. She closed the door behind her. “Making a new resin or something?”
“I thought I told you to lock the door,” the other guy said, rising from his seat at Ty’s desk.
“It’s okay,” Ty said, also rising. “She’s cool.”
The stranger went past Cobie, staring at her body, and locked the door. He was medium height, dressed too nice for the Keys, and had dark eyes and black hair, slicked back.
“Cool?” the man said, looking her over again. “I’d say hot.”
Cobie ignored him and turned to Ty. “What’s going on?”
“You picked a bad time for a visit,” the man said. He moved in front of her, letting his eyes roam once more, stopping for a moment at the square neckline of her tank top.
Cobie was used to boys looking at her chest. But they mostly just stole a glance, or a stealthy peek. This guy gave her the creeps, staring at her boobs.
“What’s your name?” the man asked, removing her sunglasses, and tossing them on a table.
“Hey!” she exclaimed. “Those were expensive.”
A corner of his mouth went up, not a smile or a grin, but more of a sneer. If he drove the high-priced sportscar out front, Cobie was sure he could easily afford to replace the sunglasses.
“I asked your name.”
Cobie looked from him to Ty, who now wore a worried expression.
“Cobie Murphy,” she replied, then looked back at her friend. “What’s going on here, Ty? Is my board ready?”
“You shouldn’t have come till this afternoon,” was his only reply.
The stranger grabbed her wrist and jerked her toward a chair, pushing her down onto it. Before she could protest, he grabbed a piece of rope from Ty’s workbench and pulled her arms tightly behind her back.
“Cover her mouth!” the stranger ordered Ty, as he tightened the knots on her wrists.
Cobie screamed again and the guy hit her. The punch to the back of her head made her groggy.
“You don’t have to do this,” Ty said. “She won’t—”
“Shut up,” the stranger growled. “Since you don’t have money, I’ll take this as payment. She can work off your debt for my supplier.”
Ty reluctantly took a roll of tape from a shelf and tore off a strip. The guy behind her pulled Cobie’s head up by her hair and held her in place with one hand under her chin.
Cobie’s eyes were having a hard time focusing. Then she saw Ty coming toward her with the tape.
“No, Ty,” she squealed, struggling in the other man’s grasp.
In Ty’s eyes, she could see pity, as if he truly were sorry that she’d chosen to come early to pick up her board. But she also saw a little of what was most prominent in the other man’s eyes—lust.
The tape went over her mouth, and Ty mashed it in place. Cobie squirmed on the chair, but the man held her firmly as she began to cry.
The stranger let her go and started rummaging through the different cans and bottles of epoxies and solvents on the shelf.
Cobie started to stand; to try to make a run for the door, but the man wheeled and hit her in the stomach with his fist. She doubled over, unable to breathe, then he pushed her back onto the chair.
“Top shelf,” Ty said. “The brown bottle.”
The man grabbed the bottle and a towel. He poured some of the contents onto the towel and squeezed it in his fist a few times.
Cobie started to struggle again as the man put the chloroform-soaked cloth over her face.
The last thing Cobie heard, before passing out, was the man telling Ty to get rid of her car.
It looked kinda weird to me—out of place. I cocked my head, staring at it, then took a sip of Costa Rica’s finest from a chipped Force Recon mug and studied it some more.
Definitely out of place.
There’d never been a Christmas tree in this house. In fact, I hadn’t had one since my first wife left me.
I’d been deployed the day after we put the tree up in our living room in base housing. We’d spent all evening decorating it with our daughter Eve’s help. When my FAST team received orders the next morning, we didn’t have time or permission to make even a quick phone call. It was my third combat deployment in six years—the fourth deployment overall, because I did a two-year billet as a drill instructor at Parris Island during that time, and Sandy and I rarely saw one another.
Eve turned six just a few days after Sandy left on Christmas day, and Kim was just a baby then. I returned from Panama to find an empty house, save for a dried-up brown tree, lying on the floor in the living room.
A single ornament had lain in pieces beside it. I remember recognizing the remnants of that blue and red glass ball from Sandy’s and my first Christmas together. It’d been a gift from the company gunny, Owen “Tank” Tankersley. The significance hadn’t been lost on me then.
Sandy blamed the Corps for our failed marriage.
“Do you like it?” Savannah asked, turning, and smiling brightly.
“Yeah,” I replied, deep-sixing my thoughts, and smiling back. “Looks real…Christmassy.”
She came closer to me and slipped her arms around my waist. I stared down into twin azure pools, clear and bright—deep enough to dive into. I often thought it was Savannah’s eyes that had first attracted me to her so long ago.
“When was the last time you had a Christmas tree in this house?”
“Well…this one’s the first.”
She frowned. “When was the last time you put up a tree anywhere?”
I kissed her forehead. “Kim was in diapers.”
Her eyes widened. “Now, Jesse, she’s thirty-one. You mean to tell me that you haven’t had a Christmas tree in all those years?”
“Not until today,” I replied, taking another sip from my mug. “Unless you count the fake ones the clerks put up in HQ, when I was still in the Corps.”
“That’s a crying shame,” she said, turning back to the tree with another ornament in hand. “Do you at least have something personal to decorate it with?”
My mind returned to the broken blue and red ball. It’d had the Marine Corps emblem on it with my and Sandy’s names around the top and the date, October 23, 1983 around the bottom. That was the day terrorists killed 220 of my fellow Marines in Beirut, along with twenty-one others.
Tank, then a gunnery sergeant, had given one of the ornaments to each of his NCOs in tribute to those who would not see Christmas that year, or ever again. The fact that the ball had been broken, but all the pieces lay in one tiny area on the floor several feet away from the tree, had told me that Sandy had placed it there and stepped on it.
She and I had been married less than a month when I was deployed to Lebanon for the second time that year. Our wedding was rushed, in the middle of our scheduled rotation, because Eve was on her way. It was on that second deployment to Beirut when the bombing occurred.
I made it home that Christmas and for the birth of our first child. But part of me, even to this day, had been left behind in the rubble of the Marine barracks.
On what would have been our seventh Christmas together, Sandy left, taking our girls, Eve and Kim.
I was in a jungle in Panama.
“No,” I replied, snapping the memory from my mind. “I’m afraid I don’t have any decorations for it. But I think there’s still time to order one.”
Savannah turned and smiled. “Order one? Who in the world orders just one Christmas tree ornament three days before Christmas?” She cocked her head a moment, looking at me curiously. “Wait, forget I asked that. You. That’s who.” I grinned at her and she turned back to the tree. “But I doubt you could get it in time.”
“We’ll see about that,” I replied, pulling my phone out. “Gotta make a call.”
Out of habit, I stepped outside to the corner of the deck. It used to be the only place on the island where you might get one bar of signal strength. And that was only if you held your tongue in your cheek in exactly the right position. With the new cell tower on Big Pine, though, we could now get a signal anywhere on my island.
I pulled up the number and stabbed the Call button.
“Master Guns,” I said, when Tank answered. “You’re still coming down, right?”
I’d talked to him just a few months earlier. Tank called me every October 23rd without fail. He probably called all his NCOs that were there.
During that last call, he’d expressed a desire to visit the Keys and I’d told him to come down any time he liked. When Savannah overheard that he wasn’t planning anything for Christmas—she had been listening to my end of the conversation while we watched the sun go down—she insisted that we invite him to spend it with us on the island.
Tank had served in the Corps longer than just about anyone. He’d enlisted during Vietnam at the age of seventeen and was finally forced by an act of Congress to retire two years ago. He’d served fifty-one years.
“Lookin’ forward to it, Gunny,” he boomed back.
After five decades in the Corps, Tank didn’t usually speak or talk. He boomed and roared.
“You got no idea how much it made my day when you invited me. But didn’t we just confirm this a couple of days ago?”
“I know.” I felt foolish for asking what I was about to ask. “Do you remember the Christmas of ’83?”
He didn’t respond right away but when he did, his voice was much more subdued. “That’s one I can never forget, Jesse. Why?”
“You had Christmas tree ornaments made for a bunch of the company non-coms. I remember you got a lot more of them than we had NCOs.”
“I was a dumbass gunny then,” he said with a chuckle. “Ordered them off the wrong roster and still had to get a dozen more than I thought I needed. They only sold them in boxes of twenty.”
I remember how devastated he’d felt ordering Christmas ornaments for some of the guys who didn’t come back. The fact that he had to buy even more than that at least made my question a little easier.
I wouldn’t be asking for a dead man’s ornament.
“Do you still have them?”
“I do,” he said solemnly. “I hang a different one every year. But you probably mean the extras that didn’t have names on them, right?”
“Yes. I don’t suppose you hung onto those too, did you?”
“I did.” He paused a moment, then said, “Been wondering when you’d want a new one. They’ve got the date on ’em, but no name. I know a guy here in Jacksonville. If you want, I’ll have your name on it when I bring it.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking back through the door. “That’d be nice, Tank. Just put Jesse and Savannah on it—double November and ends with Alpha Hotel.”
“Got it. Will do,” he said. “Oh, and one thing.”
“What’s that, Tank?”
“It’s taken you a while to get another one, son. Don’t break it like you did the first.”
I chuckled and we ended the call.
Tank had gone with me when I went home that day to find my family gone and my house empty. A moving van does not escape scrutiny in base housing communities, so word spread quickly among the wives and other Marines in the neighborhood.
But Tank was one of only three people deployed with us who knew that Sandy had left me. Just before we took off from Panama, the battalion CO, back at Lejeune, had informed our company CO, who in turn told the sergeant major. I was on the list for gunny at the time, and the sergeant major and Tank didn’t tell me she was gone until we were wheels down at Cherry Point.
When I looked back into the house, Savannah had her back to me. She was wearing shorts and a lightweight, blue, sleeveless blouse. Stretching high on bare feet to reach the top of the tree, she extended one leg behind her for balance, like a ballet dancer. Her blouse rode up, showing a smooth, tanned, lower back—the muscles along her spine as tight as any ballerina’s.
I had a sudden realization—Tank hadn’t been talking about the glass ornament when he warned me not to break the new one. He was talking about my upcoming marriage.
“Who were you talking to?” Savannah asked as I came back in.
When I first met her, she’d been on the verge of kicking my ass up one side and down the other for scaring her sister, Charlotte. I’d warned her sister about sex slavers abducting a woman and her two teenage daughters just a few weeks before that. Charlotte had thought I was making it up. I remembered that Savannah had called me bud then, and it wasn’t meant in a nice way.
But by that time, it was already too late. Her long, tanned legs, blond hair kissed by the sun, and those big blue eyes had already worked their magic on me.
It seemed like yesterday. She was twenty-nine then, visiting the Keys with her sister after breaking up with her husband, still full of youth and raw energy. The last two decades had done little to diminish either of those traits. She was easily the most beautiful and passionate woman I’d ever known.
“That was Tank,” I replied. “Leave a spot in the middle for me, okay?”
“The middle of the tree?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Special delivery memorial Christmas tree ornament from Tank Tankersley.”
“I’m looking forward to finally meeting him,” she said. “You talk about him so. How long did you say he served?”
“Fifty-one years—from LBJ to the Donald.”
Her head tilted up as she counted on her fingers. “That’s ten presidents! Why so long?”
That was a good question. After Sandy left me, the Corps filled the gap as my family. I was promoted to gunnery sergeant six months later and threw everything I had into my job. Not long after, I was deployed as part of the Marine Security Detachment aboard the USS Independence, last of the conventionally powered supercarriers. All of the larger naval warships had a contingent of Marines aboard for security. The other Marines in the MSD had been together a while. I was the new guy, but I wasn’t going to be with them long. I had a lot to keep me occupied as the Independence was deployed to the Persian Gulf during the runup of Desert Shield. I would spend the next four months mostly on my own in the desert.
A couple of years later, I tried marriage again, a bartender named Kristina Butcher, who was four years older than me. That had been a huge mistake, which I quickly corrected. A month after divorcing Kristina, I’d found myself in the Mog. Somalia was a nightmare, but I remember thinking it a reprieve. I’d married one other time, but Alex had been murdered on our wedding night by arms smugglers.
Not the greatest track record, I know.
I guess the emptiness had been the same for Tank after he and his wife divorced. From the age of seventeen, the Corps had been his only family until he met Jolene. Their marriage didn’t last as long as my first one. I figured he had done what I had—adopted the Corps as his only family. But he’d just never moved on from there.
And the Corps was in no hurry to see him leave. Having the Medal of Honor around his neck meant Tank had a home forever. Or so he thought. Having an MOH recipient on active duty was good PR for recruiters. But even Chesty Puller couldn’t stop the march of time.
“I guess he just never had any reason to leave,” I said. “U.S. Code says you can’t serve beyond the end of the month of your sixty-eighth birthday. Otherwise, he’d probably still be in the Corps.”
“I’d think after that long, he’d have a hard time readjusting.”
I nodded. “Not really readjusting. He probably doesn’t remember much about his life before the Corps. I’m sure it was tougher than most.”
“There,” she said, stepping back. “It’s not my best. The trees we put up on Sea Biscuit were smaller, so I don’t have as many decorations as I’d like to have for such a big tree.”
She turned and hugged me. “Thanks for getting it for me.”
She’d chosen the spot in front of the big double window that faces south; the direction someone would come, if someone were inclined to visit. I’d never had many visitors to my island, but over the last few months, we’d had quite a few friends stop by. I had to admit, the new drapes, pulled back with a sash, went equally well with the rough-hewn interior wall boards and the tree.
“We can hit the Kmart if you want,” I offered. “Pick up some more ornaments.”
“They’re probably all picked over,” she said, turning back to the tree and moving one ornament to a different spot on the same branch. “I bet they don’t have anything left but those tacky elf-on-a-shelf ornaments.”
“Oh, no,” I said, clutching at a strand of imaginary pearls around my neck. “Not those hideous things.”
She turned and put her hands on her hips, staring at me. “So, are you going to tell me what this memorial ornament is?”
My grin disappeared. “Tank was the company gunny when I was in Beirut in ’83. I was one of his squad leaders. That first Christmas after the bombing, he had some glass balls custom made for all the NCOs, commemorating the date of the attack.”
“I remember you telling me how hard he took that.”
“We all did,” I said. “I was lucky, I guess. My squad was on mounted patrol that morning, miles from the barracks.”
I turned toward the sound of a dozen feet coming up the back steps, eight of them with claws.
Finn came through the open door first, followed by Woden, then Jimmy and Florence. The dogs proceeded to their rug in the middle of the room and sat, looking at the tree.
I pointed at each dog in turn. “There will be no drinking of the tree water. No peeing on any tree inside the house. And no roughhousing around it. Do I make myself clear?”
They both looked at the tree, then at Savannah, and finally back at me before lying down with their big heads on their equally big paws.
“It looks beautiful, Mom,” Florence said.
Our daughter was home for two weeks from UF and was staying in Kim and Marty’s little house on the north side of the island. They weren’t there very often; both being sworn officers with Florida Fish and Wildlife. They worked out of Everglades City on the southwest coast.
Jimmy looked around the room. “You’ve sure done a lot for the old place, Savannah.”
“Hey,” I said, indignantly, “I did most of the work.”
“Thank you, Jimmy,” Savannah said, then turned and kissed me on the cheek. “And you worked very hard on it, Jesse.”
Florence helped herself to the coffee pot. “It’s bigger than we ever had on Sea Biscuit.”
“Go big or go home,” Jimmy said. “That’s what Jesse told me when we were picking it out.”
Savannah had subtly hinted at wanting a tree for a week and I’d pretended not to pick up on it. Then I’d surprised her with a nine-footer strapped to the Grady’s Bimini top.
“I remember when I was a kid, my dad said that a Christmas tree should be as tall as the room,” I offered in defense.
My phone chirped and vibrated in my pocket. When I looked at it, I didn’t recognize the number, but it was local.
“McDermitt,” I said, after stabbing the Accept button.
“Hi, Jesse,” a man’s voice said. “You might not remember me—we met at the Rusty Anchor a few years back. This is Manny Martinez.”
“I remember,” I said. “The Grassy Key Resort guy, right?”
“Yeah. Look, I know you’re probably busy with Christmas right around the corner, but I was wondering if I could meet with you? Maybe over lunch or something?”
“What’s this about?” I asked, heading to the table next to my recliner, where there was a notepad and pencil.
“Did you hear about the girl that went missing just before Thanksgiving?”
“Yes, I did. I haven’t heard much recently, though.”
“Her name’s Cobie Murphy,” Manny said.
I scrawled the name on the pad.
“Her mother works at the resort,” he continued. “Her name’s Donna and you’re right, there hasn’t been any movement on her case since about a week after she disappeared. A search was conducted by volunteers over the long weekend, but the only thing that was turned up was her car, abandoned at the Kmart where she worked. The cops are convinced she just took off, like so many do. Donna and I are convinced that’s not what happened. She thinks Cobie’s still alive, but even if she’s not, there’s just no closure.”
He was right. It happened a lot in the Keys, it seemed. Paradise to an adult is boring to a teenager and sometimes they ran off for the bright lights and action of cities like Miami or LA.
Marathon, like most of the small towns up and down the Keys, didn’t have its own police force. That was left to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, which was stretched thin. The county included much of southwest Florida, from Everglades City south and a good portion of the Glades itself, not to mention all of the Keys.
“And you want me to look into it?” I asked.
“I figured with your background in Homeland Security and owning a security business up island…”
“Hang on a sec,” I said, and turned to Jimmy. “Do we have any charters coming up?”
“No, man,” Jimmy replied. “Nothing till after the first of the year. But remember? You’re dropping me off at the Anchor tomorrow, so I can stay with Naomi for Christmas. And you’re supposed to pick your friend up at the airport early in the afternoon.”
I put the phone back to my ear. “How about lunch at the Rusty Anchor tomorrow, Manny? Say, about eleven hundred? I have to pick up an old friend at the airport at twelve-thirty.”
He agreed and we ended the call.
“What was that all about?” Savannah asked.
“That was Manny Martinez,” I said. “The owner of Grassy Key Resort. Remember that girl that disappeared a month ago?”
“I saw her a couple days before it happened,” Florence said. “I’d met her at a friend’s birthday party over the summer and ran into her again the week I was home for Thanksgiving. From what I’ve heard, the police seem to think she ran away. I didn’t get to know her all that well, we just talked a little, but she didn’t seem like the type to me.”
“They never do,” I said. “Until they actually do it. Anyway, her mother works for Manny and he asked me to look into it.”
“It was like five weeks ago,” Jimmy said, looking down and shaking his head. “I, and most of the guides, helped with the search. But you know what they say when someone’s been gone more than forty-eight hours, man.”
I did. The first day was search and rescue. The second day was searching beyond hope.
After that, it was a body recovery operation.
At 1045 the following morning, Jimmy and I idled up the canal in my old Grady-White center console. Passing between my sailboat and Savannah’s trawler, I looked to the right. Island Hopper’s red wings and fuselage gleamed in the late morning sun at the top of the boat ramp. It’d been a couple of weeks since she’d stretched those wings. I made a mental note to take Tank up and show him around.
Coming back to the Rusty Anchor always felt a little bit like I was returning home. Sure, there had been a few physical changes—the canal was dredged, sea walls and docks rebuilt, and the bar was renovated after Hurricane Irma. But the feel of the place was the same as it was when Rusty had first brought me there, a week after we returned from Okinawa.
Rusty and I had met on a Greyhound bus on our way to boot camp. We’d been in the same platoon at Parris Island, then served together for most of three years after graduating. By then, he and I were closer than brothers.
We’d had two weeks leave after Oki, and we’d both stayed at Mam and Pap’s house in Fort Myers for a week, paddling and fishing the Ten Thousand Islands. Then we’d driven on down to the Keys in Rusty’s Camaro to spend another week with his parents in Marathon. We’d spent our days free diving and spearfishing. And spent a couple of nights down in Key West, hitting on tourist girls.
“You’re not gonna tie up under Salty Dog’s bowsprit?” Jimmy asked.
“Less distance for Tank to walk,” I said.
“He have trouble getting around, man?”
“Not sure,” I replied. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. But he’s likely to have some luggage.”
“How long’s he staying?” Jimmy asked, as we neared the turning basin at the end of the canal and he made ready to step over to Rusty’s big barge.
I brought the Grady alongside and reversed the engine, spinning the wheel to bring the stern closer. “Through New Year’s Day,” I said. “But I told him to get an open-ended ticket, in case we get rolling on tuna.”
As we bumped the barge’s fenders, Jimmy stepped over with the bow line in hand and I killed the engine. “If he’s up to it,” he said, “maybe he’d like to ride along for the tournament up in Palm Beach the week after that.”
“I mentioned it to him,” I replied, looping the stern line around a deck cleat on the barge. “We’ll see. You staying with Naomi tonight?”
He grinned up at me as he knelt and tied off the bow line. “You won’t see me again until at least Friday, man.”
Together, we walked toward the bar. Even though it was still an hour before noon, there were a good half-dozen vehicles in the parking lot, most of them familiar to me. But I noticed an expensive-looking black sportscar with dark-tinted windows that I didn’t recognize. It looked very out of place among the pickups and Keys cars—inexpensive beaters, commonly driven by locals.
“Catch you later,” Jimmy said, turning toward the lot.
“Call me if you need me to pick you up,” I offered. “I think Savannah’s planning a run into town tomorrow and we’ll be here for Rusty’s Christmas party.”
“I will,” he said. “But we can take Rusty’s old boat if we need to.”
I waved and turned, opening the door to the dimly lit interior of the Rusty Anchor Bar and Grill, then removed my sunglasses and looked around.
Though there were windows all along the side facing the canal, they were covered with louvered hurricane shutters to block the sun and still allow a breeze to pass through. Not that it mattered anymore—Rusty had installed central air a while back.
“Hey, Jesse,” Amy Huggins said from behind the bar.
“Hey, right back,” I said. “Is Rusty around?”
“He just stepped out to the walk-in for a case of beer,” she replied. “Coffee?”
I moved to my usual spot at the far end of the bar, surveying the room again and nodding at a few people I knew. They were mostly fishing guides waiting on afternoon clients.
The only person I didn’t recognize looked like a fisherman and he was sitting with one of the guides. Maybe he drove the flashy sportscar out front.
“Here you go,” Amy said, sliding a mug in front of me. “How’s Flo like the Jeep?”
Amy was in her late thirties. She and her late husband had built a house on No Name Key, where she now lived alone with their son. Dan Huggins had been killed in Ecuador. Just before the start of the school year, she sold me her Jeep Wrangler to give to Florence.
“She loves it,” I said. “And it’s perfect for getting her back home and to the beach.”
“Are y’all ready for Christmas?”
I shrugged. Getting ready for Christmas had never been a real high priority since Sandy and the girls left. “I suppose. Savannah says we need more decorations for the tree.”
Voices outside drew my attention—an argument.
Then I heard the door of the walk-in cooler slam shut out behind the bar. I was already on my feet when I saw Rusty through the window. His heavy footfalls on the deck resonated immediacy.
“What the hell’s going on here?” he shouted.
I moved quickly toward the back door, as did a couple of the unoccupied guides. That’s just the way things worked. Mess with a local and five more would stand up.
Pushing the door open, I saw Rusty confronting two men. One was a guy I’d seen around town a few times, usually drunk or high on something. The other man looked Latino, with dark skin and black hair, slicked back.
“Get lost, Boomer,” the Hispanic man said to Rusty. “You don’t want none of this.”
“This is my place,” Rusty growled. “I ain’t having no drug selling here.”
The other guy took off, running toward the dinghy dock, leaving his friend to face Rusty’s wrath.
I moved quickly across the deck and stepped down to the grass just as the man pulled a switchblade knife from his pocket, flicking it open with an ugly sound.
“You want some of me, old man?” he asked, a malevolent light dancing in his dark eyes.
As fast as the knife had appeared in the man’s hand, a Beretta 9mm appeared in Rusty’s. I drew my Sig and leveled it at the man as I strode toward them.
“The real question is,” Rusty said, grinning at the man, “what kind of cabrón would bring a knife to a gunfight?”
“Drop the knife,” I said, coming up beside my friend. “Do it now and nobody gets hurt.”
His fierce eyes cut from Rusty to me and back again. He had only one chance of getting out of this situation unhurt and he knew it. He dropped the switchblade like it was a hot coal.
“Leave and don’t ever come back,” Rusty said. “If I ever see you again, I won’t even ask if you got a new cuchillo. I’ll just shoot you dead and dump your body in the Gulf Stream. Nobody worth a shit will miss you. Comprendo?”
He glared at Rusty for a moment. “Oh, you will see me again. Of that, you can be sure.”
Without another word, the man turned and headed toward the parking lot.
“Who was that?” I asked, sliding my Sig back into its holster at my back.
“I don’t know,” Rusty replied. “I’ve seen him around a few times and suspected he was a dealer. But this time I caught him in the act.”
I turned toward the sound of a high-performance engine roaring to life in the parking lot. The black Nissan sportscar I’d seen there earlier roared out of the lot, spraying gravel.
“How do these people even find your place?” I asked rhetorically.
Out by the highway, Rusty didn’t have a sign or anything indicating there was a restaurant and bar. Just an old mailbox, leaning slightly. You couldn’t see the place from the highway, just the crushed shell driveway disappearing into the overhanging tropical foliage. It looked like one of thousands of private driveways.
“The price of advertising, I guess,” Rusty said. “Sid does a great job of filling the place up, but a lot of them are tourists and…that type. You come to town to pick up Tank?”
“Yeah,” I replied, as we reentered the bar. “His plane lands at twelve forty-five. But I’m meeting Manny Martinez here for lunch.”
“Speak of the devil,” Rusty said, as Manny and a woman I’d seen around stepped through the front door. “Y’all grab a seat anywhere. Amy’ll get your order. I gotta get back to stocking the bar.”
I motioned Manny toward a corner table.
“We saw what happened out back,” he said, as he and the woman sat down. “What was that all about?”
“Somebody selling drugs,” I replied. “Rusty doesn’t much care for that going on in his place.”
“Thanks for seeing us, Jesse.”
“Manny said you were the right guy,” the woman offered. “I’m Donna Murphy, Mister McDermitt.”
“Just call me Jesse,” I said, as Amy arrived with menus.
“I’ll have whatever’s fresh, please,” I told her. “Rufus knows how I like it. And a glass of ice water.”
Donna Murphy nodded, not even looking at the menu. “Same for me.”
“Me, too,” Manny added.
“Three blackened hogfish sandwiches coming up,” Amy said, gathering the menus, then heading out the back door to the outdoor kitchen.
“You’re Cobie’s mom?” I asked Donna, though I already knew.
“Yes,” she replied.
“I’m sorry about what happened.”
She nodded, fidgeting somewhat.
“Is there something wrong?” I asked. “I mean aside from the obvious.”
“I’ll be straight with you,” she said.
“I appreciate people who are.”
Amy returned with a pitcher of water and three glasses, leaving them on the table.
“Cobie and I live in a trailer near the resort. We don’t have much, and I don’t know how I can afford to hire a private detective.”
“First off,” I said, “I’m not a PI. I’m part-owner in a security firm up in Key Largo and I own a charter business. Secondly, if there’s some way I can help, I will. I don’t need your money.”
“That’s what Manny told me you’d say.”
“So, tell me what happened,” I said. “I’m afraid I only know what’s been reported on the radio. I don’t have a TV.”
“It was the Friday before Thanksgiving,” she said. “Cobie had to work at the Kmart that morning. She was supposed to start at nine and left the house about a quarter till. She was planning to stop on the way and pick up a new custom board, then go to Cable Park after work.”
“A wakeboard,” she explained. “They usually ride them towed behind a boat, but the park has towers with cables that pull you from end to end.”
“She never made it to work?” I asked.
“Her car was found there,” Donna said. “But her coworkers never saw her go inside.”
“And the police didn’t find anything in the car? Prints or something?”
“No,” she replied, her eyes beginning to well up a little. “The cops think she met someone there and left with them.”
“What about the store she bought the board from?”
“It wasn’t a store,” she replied. “A friend of hers, who lives near the airport. He makes custom boards and stuff. His name’s Ty Sampson.”
“And the police talked to him?”
“Yes,” Donna replied, wiping the corners of her eyes with a tissue from her purse. “Sorry. He told them that he’d texted her that morning, telling her she could pick the board up in the afternoon and he didn’t get home until two.”
“So, why do you think she went there before work?”
“She said she was going to. Just before she left the house.”
“The police cleared the guy?” I asked.
“Yeah. He showed them his phone and the texts between him and Cobie. They said he had an alibi. He was in Miami picking up fiberglass.”
“In Miami?” I asked. “Seems odd with all the fiberglass shops around here.”
“The cops asked him that, too,” she said. “He told them he gets it cheaper from a place up there. Cheap enough to warrant the drive.”
“Did the police check Kmart’s security cameras?”
“Where her car was parked wasn’t on the footage,” Manny said. “They require employees to park way out by the highway.”
“And there’s been no sign of her since? No calls or texts, or Facebook posts or Twitter?”
“No calls or texts,” she replied. “She doesn’t use Facebook or Twitter. They use Snapchat these days. But no, there’s been no trace of her anywhere since she disappeared. When I called her that afternoon—my brother and his girlfriend were coming in that night—my call went straight to voicemail.”
“And there’s been no activity on her phone since? What about credit cards or debit cards?”
Almost five weeks ago, I thought. Most cops would tell you that the odds were that the girl was dead.
Donna must have read it in my expression. “She’s not dead. I’d know—a mother would know, right?”
I glanced over at Manny. He’d mentioned needing “closure” on the phone. I couldn’t read anything in his eyes, but I got the feeling that he wanted me to find Cobie’s body or find out what happened to it, so Donna could accept the fact.
“Do you have the name of the investigating officer?” I asked.
“Detective Andersen,” she said. “Clark Andersen.”
“That’s spelled with an E, not an O,” Manny offered.
“Do you have a recent picture of Cobie?” I asked.
Donna opened her purse and took out a snapshot. “I printed a bunch of these from a picture I took of her last month, when she bought her first car.” She handed it to me. “The car isn’t much, but she loved it and was proud that she’d saved up and paid for it herself.”
I looked at the photo. It showed a pretty, blond-haired teen standing beside a blue Ford Fiesta, smiling proudly. She wore cutoff jeans and a tank top. The car was small and the top of her head barely cleared the roof.
“Pretty girl,” I said. “How tall is she?”
“Five-two,” Donna replied. “And just over a hundred pounds.”
“This is a hard question to ask,” I said. “But has she ever been gone without your knowledge before?”
Donna shook her head. “No. Cobie’s a good kid, Jesse. And I’m not saying that because she’s mine. She’s athletic and considers drugs and alcohol to be poison to her body. She even does volunteer work at the turtle hospital.”
I glanced at Manny, who nodded agreement. “I’ve known Cobie since she was a baby, Jesse. She wouldn’t go off without telling Donna. Zero chance of that.”
“I’ve met Detective Andersen a couple of times,” I said, putting the photo in my shirt pocket. “First thing I’m going to do is go over the Kmart video myself. Then I want to pay a visit to this Ty character and get a feel for him.”
Donna told me where the guy lived and how to get to there. It was only a couple of miles away.
“After that,” I said, thinking out loud, “I’ll dig through all of Andersen’s notes and photographs and see if there’s anything there he didn’t tell you about.”
Donna’s eyes signaled bewilderment. “What would he not tell me?”
“I doubt he’d withhold anything,” I replied. “But another set of eyes might see something he missed.”
“I asked him for the case file,” Donna said. “He wouldn’t show me.”
“Oh, I don’t intend on asking to see anything,” I said with a grin.
“Then how—” Donna started to say, as Rufus arrived with a big tray.
“Cap’n Jesse,” he said, with a big toothy grin. “I and I were just thinkin’ ’bout yuh dis mornin’.”
“Good thoughts, I hope.”
“Aye, mon,” Rufus said, passing plates around the table.
His eyes fell on Donna and he frowned. “Do not fret, Miss Donna. Little Cobie will return. Cap’n Jesse see to dat.”
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