THE MONARCH

Chapter One

 

Anne Serafini was tired of death. She was tired of it stalking her, bullying her and jumping out at her from every dark corner. So tired and yet sleep eluded her.

 She sat on the white sand beach of Anna Maria, a small barrier island off the southwestern coast of Florida, fingering the bottle of sleeping pills in her jacket pocket and pushing away the urge to swallow them all. Instead, she forced herself to focus on breathing, on just being still and waiting for a new day to begin. She figured if she couldn’t find peace and a new beginning here, on this little sliver of paradise, it didn’t exist anywhere.

The dark sky lifted above the ocean, the light being dialed up by the mysterious forces that can turn a whole world toward the sun. She believed these same forces were screwing with her—turning her world toward or away from light at will.

Anne shifted her legs as the morning sun began to glint off the Gulf of Mexico waters and unzipped her white, running jacket. It was early October, around sixty-five degrees with a brisk ocean breeze adding to the chill, but Anne was only now becoming aware of the cold sand, the damp air weighing down her hair, the ache in her shoulder from the stab wound not yet healed and nowhere near forgotten. Two weeks now seemed like a lifetime ago.

She flinched at the sudden, brutal memory. It came in a flash, too quickly to stop.

The blood, so much blood. Little fair-haired Ava screaming in her high chair as her psychotic daddy stabbed her mommy thirty seven times on the kitchen table. The same table Anne had helped her sand down and refinish earlier that week. Anne had tried to protect her but Bobby’s knife and rage were vicious. He struck her hard and deep before tossing her to the side like a ragdoll.

 Sorrow threatened to swallow her. The physical scar would heal eventually. The emotional one, she wasn’t so sure about. She wasn’t sure she could live with such a heavy burden. She had failed. Amanda was dead and she was alive. Why? She wasn’t the one with a two year old daughter that needed her mommy. Life was so maddeningly unfair.

With tremendous mental effort, Anne pushed away the memory and rose slowly to her full five foot seven frame, stretching and shaking out the numbness in her legs. Lifting her gaze, she squinted at the open sky.

God, it was so much easier to breathe here, nothing above or around her but sky and water. No oppressing ceiling of clouds, no towering barriers of rock and no dark corners. Just silvery light, sand like sugar and endless ocean. The beauty was almost painful. She felt small, lost and unworthy. Virginia was behind her, so what now?

 Anne planned to stand at the shoreline, letting the ocean lick her toes and the rising sun warm her aching back but, as she neared the shore, something caught her eye about fifty yards down the beach to her left. Something big being rolled back and forth in the tide. Probably a big dead fish.

She sighed and made her way along the curve of the wet sand, flip flops in hand, being careful not to step on the broken shells littering her path. Gentle waves made swishing noises as they rolled in and were sucked back out, her footprints vanishing with them.

 The light was changing rapidly now.  Anne kept her eyes on the fish as she approached it. Her nose twitched as the smell of salt water gave way to the smell of rotting flesh.  She should have known then, the smell was so familiar, but this place was heaven. She wasn’t expecting death to show up here.

She stood a few feet away, her mind failing over and over to process what she was seeing. It was large.  Plastic? Garbage maybe? And then the tide rolled the thing over and she saw it, pressed against the plastic. Nose, mouth…empty eye sockets. A face.

“No, oh god,” she said aloud, as her mind finally let her see the thing for what it was—not just a face, but a whole body wrapped in plastic. She could tell it was a female by the long tangles of hair pressed against the plastic, maybe early twenties. Hard to tell more than that.

She stood there for just a moment with her nose buried in her jacket, the breeze lifting strands of brown, wavy hair from her temples, and offered the dead girl a moment of silence. It was all she could do and her own frustration with life boiled over as this girl’s senseless death sank deeper into her psyche, solidifying her belief in the unjust nature of life.

“Why?” It was just a question thrown out to the universe. She didn’t really believe there was a god. After everything she’d seen and witnessed in her short life, she was having a hard time believing that anything good existed at all.

 Her green eyes watered from the rising light and emotions. “I hope, wherever you are, you have at least found peace,” she whispered. 

Fear began to brew, churning her stomach as she walked a few feet up the beach and sat back down in the sand. These little coincidences could no longer be ignored. Death and violence were stalking her. No matter where she went, death showed up.

“Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” she recited absentmindedly. Reaching a hand into her pocket, she pulled out her keys, sleeping pills and finally her cell phone.

Two officers arrived within minutes, trudging through the sand toward her in dark blue uniforms and sunglasses. One was tall, young, olive skinned, black hair cropped tight. The other one was older, sporting a red mustache and more confidence.  Anne barely acknowledged their approach. She couldn’t take her eyes off the discarded girl in the water. She was transfixed both by fear and an abnormal sense of peace, the kind that consists of time stopping as if the world was holding its breath.  This palpable texture of fear was new to her. She tried to give herself a break, considering what she’d just been through. And besides, suffering the kind of death she saw in front of her would be her personal hell: Her water phobia and claustrophobia rolled into one.

But, the other reaction bothering her—why she felt a little bit envious? Why was she imagining what it would be like to be Snow White—eternally asleep in her glass coffin, unreachable, unaware, completely free? Nirvana.

The voices coming closer pulled her from her thoughts.

“Jesus. What’s going on in this town?” It was the younger officer,  removing his sunglasses as they approached.

“Something, Williams. Definitely something.” The older officer shook his head then nodded at Anne. “Miss Serafini? Anne Serafini?”

“Yes.” She looked up expectantly, not having the strength or reason at the moment to stand.

“I’m Officer O’Brady. I understand you’re the one who found the victim?”

“Yes.”

“All right.” He glanced at the shoreline, his mouth sinking at the corners. “Officer Williams will get some general information from you and will also need  a statement so sit tight.” He nodded at his partner and then made his way toward the plastic encased body, which was now lodged pretty good in the sand, collecting tangles of seaweed.

Officer O’Brady squatted a few feet from the body, covering his nose with the back of his hand.  How many times had he walked this beach with his wife and grandkids? His Irish temper flared. This island has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the nation. It’s one of the reasons he moved his family here twelve years ago from Michigan. Now some psycho had taken a sledgehammer to their sense of safety, shattering it into oblivion. Blue Glass Key would never be the same. It made him sick to his stomach. He stood and popped an antacid. Poor girl. No one should have their life ended like this. Disgraceful.

“You doing all right?” Officer Williams asked Anne as he opened his notebook. Just two years out of college, he still struggled with keeping his own emotions in check during a homicide investigation.

“No.”

“Yeah, I can imagine it must have been some shock to come up on a victim like this, huh? Not a good way to start a day, that’s for sure. Will you spell your last name for me?”

She spelled it out for him, glancing up. Now that he was closer, she could see how  young he really looked, smooth skin and all. Did he even have to shave yet? He had a pureness about him, an innocence that hadn’t yet been dissolved by life’s acidic nature. A young horse ready to buck the world. At twenty-six,  she was probably only a few years older than him, but her life so far had given her both wisdom and fear beyond her years and had already eroded her sense of safety. She didn’t want to buck, she wanted to hide. What did they call that? Jaded? Cowardly?

“Address?” he asked.

“I’m sort of in between places. Staying at the Island Breeze Inn right now.” She gave him her cell number instead.

“Okay. Did you see anyone else on the beach, in the parking lot, maybe?”

“No. I’ve been here for a few hours. I haven’t seen a soul, sorry.” She wanted to add that the body had probably been in the water for a few days and only made its way to this spot via the tides, not dumped here this morning. But, she held her tongue. She wasn’t part of this investigation. This time, she was only a witness.

Officer O’Brady returned, his face tomato red and twisted up in self-contained fury. “Call it in, Williams. Get the crime scene tape out of the car and get Sam Larson here. Tell ‘em we’ll need the M.E.”

“Right, Joe.” He moved with long strides through the sand, back toward the parking lot. A group of gulls squawked and flapped as he disturbed them.

“Guess this wasn’t part of your vacation plans, eh?” Officer O’Brady asked.

Anne looked up at him, shielding her eyes from the bright sky. The humor was a nice attempt, but he was nervous as hell underneath all that anger. He kept glancing back at the body, biting the inside of his cheek and adjusting his firearm. This really had him spooked. She had to believe Blue Glass Key hadn’t experienced many dead bodies washing up on their pristine beaches.

“I’ve kind of given up on making plans,” she said. “They never seem to work out.”

“Oh yeah? How’s that goin’ for you?” There was the attempt at humor again.

“Not so great.”

His face softened a bit as he looked down at her. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a pale forearm. “You here with family?”

“No.”

“All alone, huh? How long you been here?”

“Three days.”

“Where you from? Jersey? New York?”

“I lived in New York City for a little while, when I was younger.” She didn’t offer all the places she’d lived in since. She wasn’t even sure she could remember if she needed to.

“I’ve got relatives there. Crazy place. So, how long you gonna be on the island?”

“Don’t know,” she said. “No plans, remember?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Right, no plans. Well, Detective Larson will want to talk to you, then you can,” he stopped, squinting up at the boardwalk she had first entered the beach on. “Wonderful.” Anne followed his gaze and saw a knot of people carrying rolled yoga mats coming down the beach.

Anne watched as Officer Williams hustled to catch up with them, a roll of crime scene tape and wooden stakes tucked under his arm. As he spoke to them, they looked at each other and tried to peer around Officer Williams. They looked like women Anne would have liked to be friends with, be healthy with—but they were still shiny, unaware and Anne’s knowledge would just infect them with anxiety. She turned away and wiggled out of her jacket. The sun was already baking her. It was too bright. Too intense. She began to feel queasy. Probably from lack and sleep and food. Did she even remember to eat yesterday? A bag of peanuts and diet coke was all she could think of.  She pulled her knees up against her, rested her forehead on them and pressed her hands against her ears, shutting out the world. Just five minutes of darkness and silence is all she needed. Four minutes was all she got.

Anne felt a heavy hand on her shoulder, on the wound beneath her  t-shirt in the shape of an eight inch kitchen knife. Startled, she jerked her head up to stare into the face of the man seated in the sand next to her. She couldn’t separate his eyes from the sky, they were so blue.

“Didn’t mean to scare you.” He held out his hand, “Detective Larson.”

“Anne,” she said, slipping her hand into his, feeling its warmth and strength radiate up her arm. “Serafini.” He smelled of soap and musk and he was looking at her like she was the only person in the world. That combination held her prisoner. She was afraid to even breathe for fear of breaking the spell.

“You okay?” His gaze moved to her mouth. Looking for what? A smile? A word? A coherent sentence?

Their eyes met again and she felt a tiny shock as if he had jump-started something within her. This was ridiculous. Here she was at a murder scene after one of the most harrowing times of her life and her body was reacting to this man like she’d been living on an all-female planet. Irritated and confused, she shifted her attention to the dead girl.

“Better than her,” she managed.

Officers O’Brady and Williams were just finishing up taping off a square of the beach that would give them enough room to work. The Medical Examiner and her assistant were approaching the body. More uniformed officers moved in behind them, alert and scanning the beach.

She felt the detective shift beside her and his hand brushed her thigh as he plucked something from the sand.

After a moment, he cleared his throat.“I assume you have a prescription for these?”

Anne turned back to him and saw what was resting in his palm: her keys and a full bottle of sleeping pills. They must have fallen out of her jacket when she took it off.

“Of course. My name’s on the bottle.” She snatched the keys and pills out of his hand with a bit more hostility than she meant to. It was just, she didn’t like the disapproving look, the silent head shake. She wasn’t some druggie or suicide case that he had to feel sorry for yet the shift in his attitude toward her told her this was exactly the conclusion he had reached. The change was subtle, but she was sensitive and noticed it. Or maybe she was watching for it closely. She knew he had seen it all on the job. Maybe he was jaded, too. Still, it really bothered her that he would think this about her.

He looked away, maybe disappointed, maybe disgusted—she didn’t know him well enough to say—and then stood up, dusting the sand off of his tan slacks. This abrupt withdrawal left her chilled. The world became noisy once again. Wind, waves, screaming gulls, police radios.

 “I’ll need you to answer some questions for me, Miss Serafini,” Detective Larson said, a hint of a chill to his tone. “And then you’ll be free to go.”

Anne couldn’t stop herself from worrying about what Detective Larson thought of her. She wanted to ask him what gave him the right to judge her. It was her life. If she needed a prescription to help her sleep or even wanted to swallow the whole damned bottle, that was her business. He didn’t know anything about her. She wanted to tell him all this but instead she just sat there, silently fuming.

Warm tears blurred her vision but she wasn’t about to let them fall. She hadn’t even cried at Amanda’s funeral—or since then—Anne damn sure wasn’t going to cry over something as trivial as this. She tried to convince herself that his opinion of her didn’t matter. But for some reason, it did. It mattered. This revelation even made her even more angry with herself.

Detective Larson had taken out a notepad but was silently squinting up at the boardwalk. Anne followed his gaze and saw a young woman—petite with short, dark hair–walking briskly toward them, a camera slung over her right shoulder, a leather satchel swinging from her left hand. She took in the scene as she approached.

“Gina.” Just one word. This got Anne’s attention. The way Detective Larson said her name was a mixture of irritation and sarcasm. “Don’t you have a lotto winner to interview or something?”

“Sam,” she said, amused and confident. “You know I wouldn’t miss this for the world. Besides, you should tell your rookie to use his cell phone, not his radio if you don’t want me around.”

Sam mumbled something under his breath.

 Anne smiled to herself. There was only one type of person at a crime scene that could get a detective that aggravated in such a short amount of time. A reporter. She pushed herself up off the sand, ignoring the tingling and stiffness in her legs, and held out her hand.

            “Hi, Gina. Anne Serafini.” She suddenly became aware of Detective Larson’s attention shifting to her.

“Nice to meet you.” She gripped Anne’s hand, her smile widening. “I take it you’re the one who found the victim?”

“Yes.”

“Miss Serafini, Gina is a reporter…”

“I know,” Anne cut him off, her eyes still locked on Gina’s. “In my previous job, I learned to respect their power. Friend not foe, that sort of thing.”

“Good advice,” Gina said. “So, what did you do in your previous job?”

“Forensic photographer.”

“Really? Huh.” Gina glanced at Detective Larson, her right hand moving to rest on her hip. “On vacation?”

“Not really.”

“Law enforcement?”

“No. My training’s in photography. I just kind of fell into the crime scene part. Bit of a long story.”

“Interesting. Well, if you’re going to be staying here and need work, this little scrap of sand posing as a town actually needs a crime scene photographer on the team. Now that there’s more than dirty old men and drunk teens to investigate.” She turned her smile on Sam Larson, her dark eyes softening. “They lost Big Rob last month. Heart attack. Very sad. Anyway,” she pointed at the officer crouching in the shallow surf, photographing the body. “Lenny there sucks. Great with fingerprinting, doesn’t understand a lick about lighting. His sketching is pretty atrocious, too.”

“Gina,” Sam tried to interrupt.

            She ignored him. “You sketch?”

Anne nodded reluctantly. Maybe she should have just kept her mouth shut. After all, she had no idea what was going on here and she did come here to recover, not get involved again.

“Seriously,” Gina turned to Detective Larson, shrugging. “This is like kismet, Sam. It’s like fate just dropped her here just when you needed her.”

That seems to be fate’s MO, Anne thought. Mostly, though, she was watching a small, knowing smile pull at the corner of Gina’s mouth. It was almost playful. She wondered if they had dated, maybe that was really where the friction between them came from. Maybe it was personal.

“I’m sure if Miss Serafini came here looking for a job, she would know to apply at the station.” He let his eyes meet Anne’s. “Which you are welcomed to do. We actually do need someone with your skill set. If you’re going to be around.” He turned back to Gina, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Go ahead and get your shots, but keep your distance.”

“And you’ll give me an interview before you leave?”

“No, I will not.”

“Don’t get grumpy with me, Sam Larson. I’ll call your mother.” She started to walk away and then turned back to Anne. “Hey, you got a place to stay yet?”

“Um, no, actually…no.” She found herself glancing back at the detective. He was flipping through his notebook, ignoring both of them.

 “I’ve got a friend with a condo on the beach for rent. You can reach me at the Daily Sun if you’re interested.”

             “Thanks.” Anne hadn’t really thought about staying long term. Everything she owned was sitting in boxes in a cheap motel room, except for her photo equipment, which lived in the trunk of her mustang. Her hand closed tighter around the bottle of sleeping pills as she glanced toward the body.  A crushing blow of disappointment hit her like a truck. Disappointment that this place she thought she picked—this island of white cranes and light hearts—was, once again, chosen for her.  The illusion she had been holding onto for three days—that this was a place she chose randomly, a warm, sunny place where people flew in to forget their lives, to rest, to be a stranger to themselves—was now gone. That was all she had wanted to be, a stranger in her own life.  But now it didn’t even feel like her life.

Could she do her job again? Could she be as objective now? As distant? No, things had changed for her. A fatal wall had been breached. Death now made her tremble. It was personal. Still, she wanted one decision that felt like her own, one that felt like she wasn’t just a pawn in some hidden game.

A lone butterfly fluttered erratically for a moment in her view and then swept up toward the sky, free to choose its own flight path.  Lucky little guy, she thought.

“You ready, Miss Serafini?”

“Sure.”

Anne answered Detective Larson’s questions. Once in awhile she would find herself watching his long tan fingers moving, scribbling and jotting in his notebook or noticing the way the sunlight was igniting the gold in his hair. Mostly, she struggled to ignore these facts.

She watched two officers help hold a stretcher as the ME and her assistant gingerly lifted the victim and carried her slowly toward her new temporary home—the white bag waiting on shore.

Who was this girl? She didn’t know her name, but she did know that she was someone’s daughter; someone who was about to have their heart shattered and their world turned black by grief.

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