It was early, just past seven, and I was the first tenant to arrive at the bungalow court at 101 West Mission. I wheeled my bike over the curb and up the steps, glancing at the seagull-spattered plaque near the bottom of the board. JAYMIE ZARLIN, SANTA BARBARA INVESTIGATIONS—SUITE D. Yep, that was me.
A giant fern frond patted my cheek with dew as I pushed my way down the path. Next time I’d need to bring a machete. The courtyard was a jungle these days, the giant bird-of-paradise plants towering over the huddle of stucco offices. The landlord had fired the gardener, informing the tenants it was that or raise the rent, take your pick.
Suite D, be it ever so humble, was down at the back. I wheeled my old Schwinn to the steps and reached into my pocket for the key to the cable looped to the banister. And halted in my tracks.
An elegant rose, poised like a ballerina with her toes in a bell jar, stood on the top step. The soft pink was pristine, the petals flared. A little white tag on a string dangled from the stem.
My heart hip-hopped like a rabbit. The rose could only be from Mike. He’d stopped being mad at me for nearly skipping town.
There were two men in my life, and sending roses just wasn’t Zave’s thing. Zave was about as romantic as a coyote, and besides, we were just friends. Other than Zave and Mike, there was nobody.
So it had to be Mike, who was dating another woman now, who was, as he’d put it himself, “moving on.” At one point, in anger, I’d told him that moving on was just fine by me.
Standing there alone in the courtyard, gazing down at the late-summer rose, I admitted the truth: it wasn’t fine by me, not at all. I missed the guy, missed the way he talked and laughed and rocked back on his feet.
Hell. I even missed the way he ignored me half the time, obsessed over sports on TV, and worked himself up to a low rolling boil for reasons that escaped me.
I cabled the bike to the banister and floated up the steps—if you can float in jeans and a T-shirt—unlocked the door, then bent down and picked up the jar. I carried it inside and placed it on the desk.
I opened the shades, the windows, and the door to the kitchenette at the back. Only then did I allow myself to bend down to the rose and take a deep breath. A sweet perfume teased my brain. I held the tag between thumb and forefinger, and read:
Por Gabi? What the! Right then and there, the Mike Dawson daydream popped like a big overblown bubble.
Since when did my assistant have a suitor? As far as Gabi Gutierrez was concerned, the male of the species was no-good, down-low, nothing but trouble. I shifted the jar to the center of the desk blotter. Gabi’s blotter, her desk. My station was the kitchen table in the back room, which was where I was now headed. Not to waste my time daydreaming, but to get some work done.
In fact I’d been busy since the conclusion of the Solstice Murders, busy with the sort of work I preferred. I’d located two children abducted by parents involved in custody squabbles, one a four-year-old being used as a pawn. And I’d tracked down and recovered a developmentally disabled young woman who’d been lured into a cross-country road trip by a pair of abusive teenagers. The punks had narrowly escaped kidnapping charges.
Now I began to sort through the stacks of paper, clearing the table and my mind, so I could focus on what mattered.
* * *
“Hola!” Gabi banged open the door at eight on the dot. In spite of my lingering chagrin, I was gratified to notice a Rosarita Bakery bag peeking out from her giant purse.
“Morning.” I watched as she went to her desk.
Gabi noticed the rose all right—who wouldn’t, the flower practically purred for attention—but she parked her purse on the chair, removed the paper bag, and walked on into the kitchenette.
“Buenos días, Miss Jaymie. How about a croissant today? We gotta fatten you up, maybe I should get you two every morning, huh?”
My, wasn’t she sweet. And now that I thought about it, Gabi had been uncharacteristically agreeable for over a week now.
No doubt about it, something was up.
I continued to observe my personal assistant (her choice of title, not mine) as she opened the cupboard over the sink, took down a pair of pink Fiesta ware plates, and positioned a paper doily on each.
“Gabi.” I couldn’t stand it anymore. “What’s with the rose?”
“Huh?” Her expression remained serene.
“Come on. Don’t say ‘huh.’ And don’t say, ‘what rose.’”
“I did not say ‘what rose.’” She ripped open the bakery bag. I’d skipped breakfast, and the sight of the pastries almost made me pant.
She filled the carafe at the sink, then started the coffeemaker. “I see the rose, OK? I just don’t have no time to look at it yet.”
“Well, I had time. I read the tag, and it says it’s for you.” The heavy rich aroma of God’s great gift to humankind, coffee, filled my nose. “But it doesn’t say who it’s from.”
“No?” She arched an eyebrow. “Maybe it’s a secret. Private. Did you think about that, Miss Jaymie?” Gabi sat down opposite me, clearing a space in the paper chaos for her cup and plate.
“All I’m asking is—”
She smiled sweetly, then put a thumb and forefinger to her lips and turned a pretend key.
* * *
At 5:15 that afternoon, Skye Rasmussen wanted the waves so bad it was almost an ache. Three texts from his buds had jumped into his phone: wind’s picked up and changed to a sundowner, the surf off Leadbetter’s running strong, and where the f are you bro? He could almost feel the sting of the salt spray and the heat of the sun on his skin.
But first, Skye had to take care of Cruella. She was his project, his baby. He alone was responsible for the pale blue jellyfish with the lethal nine-foot-long tentacles. And baby would be getting hungry just about now.
So Skye jammed the logbook and pen in a pocket of his baggy shorts, chained his board to the rack on his pickup, and headed out for the aquarium. Dealing with the man killer shouldn’t take long.
He parked out on Cabrillo where it was free, answered one of the texts, then tossed his cell in the glove box and hopped out of the truck. The wind had picked up for real, and as Skye jogged down the planks of the wharf he heard the waves slap against the pilings. Excitement rippled through him. This was going to be an awesome afternoon, maybe the best all summer.
He slowed to a walk, then stopped at the rail behind the aquarium. His gaze drifted along the golden curve of East Beach. Skye was thinking about calling Taryn and asking her to meet him at Leadbetter.
He wanted her with him today, out on the water. She was still nervous about them being seen in public together, but they had to do it sooner or later. Skye looked down, into the churning surf.
He’d fucked up with her, big time. But it wouldn’t happen again. Now he knew what mattered. Taryn mattered. He was getting a second chance with her, and he would make it good.
Skye felt a smile spread across his face. Yeah. Having Taryn with him this afternoon would be just about perfect. When he finished with the jellyfish and got back to the truck, he’d give her a call.
He turned away from the rail, walked over to the blank service door of the aquarium and punched in the code. The door popped open. Skye stepped inside and pulled it shut. Then he hurried down the corridor and into the kitchen, where the live fish destined to be food swam in small tanks. He netted six flailing mackerel and dumped them into a white bucket. “Sorry, guys. At least you don’t have a clue about what’s gonna happen.”
The aquarium had closed to the public at 4:30. By now the staff members and volunteers would have cleaned up the facility and shut it down for the day. That was good—he was in a hurry, and the last thing he wanted was to get drawn into some long conversation.
Skye left the kitchen and walked through the darkened halls to the room housing Cruella’s two-story-high tank. Before climbing to the mezzanine, he stopped to admire his charge.
Supremely elegant as always, today Cruella looked irritated, somehow. Her long trailing ribbons twitched with agitation, and her big box-shaped head glowed like an alien’s.
Skye selected a small bronze key from the collection on his ring, and unlocked the door in the mural wall. He raced up the steel stairs two at a time, then opened the lid to the tank and balanced the pail on the rim. “Sorry, guys,” he murmured again to the shimmering fish.
Delighted to be released back to their element, the mackerel dove.
Casually, the big jellyfish stretched out an arm.
Mesmerized as always by the drama, Skye didn’t take his eyes off the tank as he tugged the notebook and pen from his shorts pocket.
A minute later he heard the click of the door below, and the sound of footsteps on the steel stairs. But still he kept his eyes riveted on the jellyfish and her delicate death dance. Skye saw the embrace, the frantic struggle, and knew it was useless. He knew.
* * *
My cell woke me. I’d turned off the ringer but not the vibrator, and the damn thing buzzed on the nightstand like some giant beetle.
I peered at the red-eyed clock across the room: 5:23 in the A.M. Old worries and habitual fears surfaced in my sleep-drunk brain. Brodie? Had something happened to Brod? The question jerked me awake.
Brodie … but he was gone. No, not gone … I made myself say the words aloud in the dark: dead. My brother is dead.
There would be no more urgent calls in the night concerning Brodie. And the thing was, much as I’d feared them, I’d give anything for those calls to return.
Anyway, no good news arrived at this hour of the morning. I burrowed under the covers, and after a few seconds the cursed thing shut up. My heart had just started to slow when the groaning vibrations started up again.
I snatched up the phone and punched it on. ZAVE, the screen proclaimed in caps. Zave Carbonel.
“Zave? What—is something wrong?”
“Not with you and me, Jaymie, not ever,” his sweet smoky voice growled.
I fell back in the bed. “Mmm … so what is it … at five-thirty in the morning you just had to hear the sound of my voice?”
“Not exactly, sweetness.” Zave paused. “Just had a call, from a friend of a friend. Jaymie, you want a job?”
“Sure.” I rolled over on my back and let my eyelids ease down. “Maybe in a few hours or so…”
“Jaymie? It’s now or never. They mentioned a figure: a grand.”
Times were tough, and this month, I recalled, we were struggling to make rent. I shoved back the covers and staggered out of bed.
* * *
5:43. I rolled my bike out of the breezeway, then stopped for a moment to tug the zip on my sweat jacket up to my chin. The sea fog was dense. In between blasts from the foghorn, I could hear the moisture drip like rain off the fronds of the big palm on the hillside above me.
I hopped on the Schwinn, pointed her nose down the drive, and angled into El Balcon. I needed to hurry, Zave had explained. I cut a sharp left through the fog onto Cliff Drive, then curved down Loma Alta.
Now I couldn’t see a damn thing. The fog absorbed the light from the streetlamps and diffused it into a yellow glow. I listened hard for traffic as I neared Cabrillo.
The car must have been a hybrid, because I didn’t hear it until it was nearly on top of me. I swerved right, caught the curb, and found myself upended in a patch of agaves at the side of the road. The big leathery leaves cushioned my fall, but a sharp spine dug into the left side of my face. I put a hand to my cheek, pulled it away: my palm was smeared with blood.
But I was fine, nothing broken. I clambered to my feet and stood there for a moment, blotting the mess with my sweatshirt and pressing hard to stop the bleed. Then I dragged the bike out of the gutter. Like me, it was no worse for wear.
I rode on, hugging the curb. The bicycle made a new sound now, a sulky clank-clunk. A sea lion bellowed not far off shore. Waves hissed on the sand.
A few minutes more and I was bouncing along the rough square timbers of the wharf. The Santa Barbara Aquarium, built on a spur pier, loomed out of the shadows on my left. Funny, I’d expected to see lights blazing, but the big two-story wooden structure was dark.
I pedaled slowly around to the back. There was the service-entrance door Zave had mentioned, illuminated by a single yellow bulb. “They’ll be waiting for you,” he’d said. “Knock twice, pause, then three times. Somebody will let you in.”
Then, he’d said something else. “Prepare yourself, Jaymie. The guy who called me didn’t spell it out, but I got the idea you’re going to see something bad.”
Something bad. Well, I’d seen bad things, I thought as I dismounted and leaned the bike against the building. I’d seen chilled bodies in the morgue, one of them the body of my own brother. Nothing could be worse than that.
Feeling like an actor in a 1930s detective flick, I knocked in code. After a minute or so the door inched open, and an eye peered through the gap. Then the door opened further. A man holding an unlit flashlight peered out at me. He was skinny and tall, slightly stooped. His pale, thinning hair was tied back in a scraggly ponytail.
“Who are you?” he said in an oddly pleasant voice. Odd because the voice didn’t fit him: it made him sound more self-confident than he looked.
“Jaymie Zarlin. I believe I’m expected.”
He stepped aside for me to enter, then shut the door after me. We stood facing each other in a short corridor illuminated by recessed ceiling lights. The space was empty, except for several lockers mounted to the wall.
The guy studied me uncertainly. His hair was actually light red, salted with white. He wasn’t young—somewhere in his mid-sixties. “So … what were you told?”
“Not much. How about if we start with your name? I’d like to know who I’m working for.”
“Not for me,” he said quickly. Then he shrugged. “I’m Neil Thompson. Aquarium director. Look, he told me they were sending someone discreet.” He glanced at my bloody cheek and frowned, as if I looked anything but.
“Discreet? I can be that.” I felt an edge of annoyance: this was like pulling teeth. “So, who is this ‘he’?”
“Do you have any idea what—” Then he shook his head, too many times. “Listen. There’s a young man in the other room. He’s dead … drowned. You’ll find a camera, I left it just inside the door on a chair. Take pictures of … of the boy. Take pictures of everything, anything you think’s important. Take your time, look around. Look for…” His voice faded.
“For—I don’t know—clues.”
“Clues. Clues to the boy’s death?” What the hell was going on? Thompson looked scared as a four-year-old.
“Yes. He wants you to have a good look. Before the police arrive.”
There it was, that “he” again. “So they’ve been called? The city cops, or the county sheriff? Because if they have—”
“They haven’t. Not yet.” He switched on his flashlight. “He’ll call them when you finish your job.”
I nodded, trying to understand what was going on under the scant words. “OK. But I need to meet the guy who’s paying me.”
“He’ll talk to you when you’re done. Now, no more questions.” Neil Thompson had stiffened his face and dropped his melodious voice, apparently trying to look and sound firm. It was a move that didn’t work on the mild-mannered guy.
But I shrugged in agreement, reminding myself of the thousand bucks Zave had mentioned. “Whatever you say.”
I followed the lanky guy out of the hall, keeping my eyes on the beam of his flashlight. Apparently he didn’t want to turn on the lights, most likely didn’t want to attract any attention from outside. What was all this about? Calling me in before they called the police—somebody didn’t trust the cops. That, or somebody had something to hide.
We moved into the gloom of the foyer, past the main desk and the entrance to the gift shop. From a side room marked Staff I heard quiet sobbing behind a partly closed door.
Thompson held open one of a pair of big swing doors and motioned me in with the flashlight. I stepped into the narrow room, and he followed after.
The space was lined with tanks glowing like neon. Iridescent fish darted through the bubbling sea water, and purple-red starfish sucked on the glass walls.
“It’s in there. You’ll … you’ll see.” Thompson pointed to an opening at the far end of the hall-like room. The gap was covered with a heavy drape that resembled a theater curtain. “Go on through. After, he’ll be waiting for you back at the main desk. You’ll give him the camera and make your notes in his presence.”
It was in there? A young man had died, and Thompson was already calling him ‘it’? “How about loaning me your flashlight?”
“You won’t need it. The tank is lit.” He turned and walked back to the foyer.
I looked at the drape. Yellow light seeped around the edges. A boy was dead in there. Drowned in a tank. And yet, nobody wanted to look. In fact, they didn’t want to look so much that they’d actually hired a stranger to do the looking.
Well, I was an investigator, wasn’t I? I’d been offered a princely sum to take a few pictures, poke around for a few clues, and keep my mouth shut. No problem, I could do those things. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a pair of latex gloves, and tugged them on.
Then I pushed back the curtain, lifted my eyes, and let out a sharp cry.
The water in the two-story-high cylindrical tank glowed with a soft yellow light. A single huge translucent jellyfish, tinged pale blue, hovered close beside the figure of a beautiful young man of seventeen or eighteen. The creature’s twitching tentacles, maybe eight feet in length, wrapped the boy’s torso in an embrace.
The boy wore shorts and no top. His body was slight yet strong. There was a slight current in the tank, and his arms and legs moved rhythmically, as if he were dancing.
But the most terrible thing was his face.
The neck was twisted slightly, so that he looked straight at me. And the expression—dear God.
The boy’s face was contorted in a terrible grimace of torment. His eyes were open wide, anguished. His lips were pulled back, exposing his teeth.
I moved around the tank to view the body from another angle. I could not look into those eyes for long.
The young man had been in the water for many hours. And yet, you could see how handsome he’d been. His hair was brown and gold, twisted in dreadlocks, bleached by the sun. He was tanned, and a single flip-flop dangled lazily from his toe. A surfer, most likely. A beautiful boy.
I noticed a labeled sign, and gratefully moved further around to read it.
Chironex fleckeri—Box Jellyfish.
Native to Australia. Sting can be fatal.
Also called Wasp of the Sea.
I made myself look again. The creature shifted several of its bluish tentacles, exposing angry red stripes on the victim’s torso.
The boy had been stung to death. From the look on his face, he’d screamed till he’d died from the agonizing pain.
“Do your job,” I muttered aloud.
I retrieved the camera, examined it for a moment, then put my eye to the viewfinder. But how could I do it? How could I peer at the victim, stare at him through a keyhole, make him into an object? I dropped my arm.
He’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about that. But maybe you’ll see something—or the lens will see something. Some clue to what happened here.
I lifted the camera and shot several times. Then I edged around the tank and shot more, from different angles. What I was doing still felt obscene. I was making a kind of exhibit of the boy’s terrible suffering.
To break the brooding silence, I spoke aloud. “First things first. How did he end up in the water?”
I tipped back my head. At the top of the open tank was a wide catwalk, almost a mezzanine, surrounding perhaps a third of the tank’s circumference. But how could I get there?
Behind the tank was a blue wall painted with fish and other sea creatures. The wall appeared solid at first glance. But when I stepped closer I saw a door mounted flush in the stucco. A keyhole was cleverly set in a sea horse’s eye.
I ran a latexed finger down the door seam, and to my surprise, the unlocked door gave way.
Still carrying the camera, I stepped into a tight column-shaped space, just large enough to hold a steep circular staircase. Behind me the door, which was mounted with a spring, clicked shut. Now I wished I’d insisted on borrowing Thompson’s flashlight.
I inched my way over to the stair and grabbed the handrail. The steel steps beneath my feet were sturdy, corrugated, and I had no trouble climbing up.
At the top, I could see again. The soft light from the tank illuminated the platform. I noticed a light switch on the wall and pressed it. Abruptly the platform was starkly lit. Keeping my eyes averted from the tank interior, I set about examining the scene.
The wall of the tank rose some three to four feet above the platform floor, which was wood, probably mahogany, thickly coated in marine varnish. The tank itself, some fifteen feet in diameter, was partially covered with a folding lid. But what caught my attention were the objects resting on the platform.
A long-handled scoop net lay beside an upright lidded plastic pail. I lifted the lid: the inside was wet, but the pail was empty. I bent down and sniffed: it smelled of fish. Beads of water glimmered like pearls on the varnished floor.
The matching flip-flop, red with a black sole, lay close by the tank. Several feet away lay a black ring binder, open flat, and a ballpoint pen. Except for the flip-flop, the objects seemed organized, in their right places.
I shot photos: of the pail, the net, the rubber sandal, the pen and the binder. Then I knelt to read the open page. It wasn’t much. A nine-week-long record of feedings of the jellyfish, a few brief observations. All noted with dates and times. I photographed the pages from the beginning, flipping them over one by one.
Then I drew in a breath and moved closer to the tank. In my head I repeated a mantra: It’s a job, just a job.
The lid was folded back on itself. It was aluminum, lightweight, constructed in sections and hinged. A few gleaming fish swam back and forth, oblivious to their impending doom. I forced my eyes to focus on the boy.
He was directly under me, swaying slightly. Clasped in the translucent arms, securely embraced. The creature seemed to be brooding, sullen. Unwilling to release its prey.
I stood frozen for a moment. Then I made myself actually see the young man. He was so close I could make out the golden hairs on his forearms.
Had he jumped into the water? Not likely, if he knew anything about the so-called wasp of the sea. Even if he’d decided to kill himself, this was too painful and ghastly a way to go about it. Besides, that flip-flop still dangling from his toe: if he’d entered the tank purposefully, he’d most likely have left both sandals behind.
He could have had an accident, though. Tripped, fallen over the raised edge. The surface of the water was some five feet below the rim. It would have been nearly impossible for the boy to have climbed out quickly. How much time had elapsed before the lethal jellyfish attacked?
But … tripped? I studied the boy’s body. The kid wasn’t especially tall, but he’d been athletic, strong. I doubted he was so clumsy as to have fallen in.
On the other hand, he could have been shoved.
Yes. A surprise push. And then, in a flash, he was in the jellyfish’s arms and stunned with its powerful neurotoxin. I watched a few unattached streamers, ruched like a girl’s hair ribbons, drift to and fro.
Certain things didn’t add up. Why hadn’t the police been called immediately? I pulled my cell from my pocket again, and snapped a dozen more shots, as a record. A recording of the truth.
“Are you finished?” a strong male voice called out. The voice was filled with anguish, yet firm. Used to command.
I looked past the railing and down, into the room below. A tall, well-built man stood just inside the door. In the gloom, I couldn’t make out his face. “Who are you?”
“I hired you. Come down and we’ll talk.”
Copyright © 2014 by Karen Keskinen