The drowning woman waves her hands, fighting above the crest of incoming tide. When her head breaks the water, she sees a fluorescent green frisbee stuck in white sand. The discarded child’s toy begs her to swim back to shore, pick it up, and create a moment of joy. It’s the last thing she sees as hands pull her down.
I should have had more fun.
Just yards from the body washed up on the beach, Detective Smith notices a neon green frisbee stuck in the white sand.
She points at it, “Bag that.”
Instead of doing as ordered, her partner-in-training, Detective Stevens, motions for a crime scene tech to bag the frisbee. Smith grits her teeth. He thinks his daddy dying a lieutenant means he doesn’t have to earn his place, but he also works in a precinct where everyone knows his father named him Steven Stevens and called him Stevie. Maybe the two things cancel each other out, and he’ll do some work.
“Couldn’t this just be an accidental drowning?”
Stevie’s an idiot, but it’s her job to enlighten him. “See her ankle.”
Smith watches the light come on behind his eyes.
“Right. Someone pulled her under,” She gestures toward the girl’s hands. “Now, look at her fingernails.”
“Right. Look closer.”
He squats beside the body. The girl’s hands point forward as if she dived into the cold sand instead of the frigid water. The young woman’s still-wet hair forms a starburst around her bluing face. A breeze from the water bites Smith’s cheeks.
“There’s still blood visible after she was in the water. So, we need to find someone who looks like he drowned a sixteen year old girl who scratched the shit out of him.”
“Why do you assume it’s a man?”
Smith takes a deep breath. “It could be a woman, but she’s a young, female victim of violent death. Odds are good she was killed by a man.”
“Her name’s Alison.”
“I know that.”
He stands. “Why not call her by her name?”
Smith doubts he will understand why she doesn’t call the corpse by the person’s name, so she walks toward the water. Smith scans the area for clues. Takes a step. Scans again. Behind her, Stevie follows protocol and scans for anything she misses.
Smith decides to reward his good detective work by explaining why she didn’t say the victim’s name. “Do you know how many more female murder victims we see than male?”
When Stevie doesn’t answer, Smith turns to face him. Legs akimbo. Hands framing her hips. Her dark suit coat flutters out behind her. She notices Stevie wears a wrinkled white button up, khakis, and sneakers with a pea coat. No tie. No suit jacket. His badge on a lanyard.
“To stay good at my job, I need to look at women’s bodies without imagining they’re me. I use their names to honor them to their loved ones, but they aren’t their corpses. So, I don’t call the body by their name.”
Fury edges against Smith’s will to maintain control. “I’ve been on the police force as long as you’ve been alive. I have the highest solve rate in the district. I don’t need you to verify my reasoning is relevant. You asked a question. I answered because you deserve the opportunity to learn. If you keep treating me like you’re doing me the favor of accepting feedback, I will make sure you end up on narcotics stakeouts from here to eternity.”
His cheeks redden. “I’m sorry.”
Smith returns to searching out clues. Stevie follows. Something green catches Smith’s eye. The winter sand has almost buried this discarded item, but she thinks it’s another frisbee. If no one had come out to walk their dog this morning, would the sand have covered their victim too? Made her just another discarded thing.
After a few steps, Stevie says, “Wait.”
Smith turns to him.
“I know you’re a good detective. I know everyone says I got this job because my dad died a lieutenant.”
She raises an eyebrow.
He holds his hands up in the universal sign of surrender. “And I know they’re right. I should also know better than to act like I’m in charge.”
He shoves his hands into his pockets and stares beyond her.
Smith offers an olive branch she’s unsure he deserves. “It’s not entirely your fault. Delegating instead of following orders and acting like people need your approval comes naturally when you’re born with a penis. But recognizing shitty behavior isn’t the same as fixing it.”
She turns to resume her task, but Stevie walks away from the water.
Squinting into the sun’s glare, he points. “There’s a car in that lot.”
She shields her eyes and spots the gray sedan. They walk toward the vehicle, and further from the crashing waves, Smith hears a car alarm. The empty stretch of beach is only accessible by the surrounding homes and a small hotel attached to this parking lot.
As they reach the spot where the concrete’s edge blurs into the fluttering blanket of sand, Smith holds out an arm, staying her partner. She looks for footprints, dropped items, anything. She’s not hopeful there’s much to find, but she doesn’t want to walk over a clue. Satisfied there’s nothing to disturb, Smith waves Stevie toward the car. She spots another frisbee irreverently tossed into the sparse grass on the far side of the building.
The car’s alarm is louder. It’s warning them that the trunk is popped up. The alarm distorts and elongates as the battery dies.
“Remind me to ask the techs how long a battery lasts. If this is our vic’s car, she might not have been in the water long.”
“If she drowned last night, the tide would have taken her out. It turned inland this morning,” Stevie says staring into the car’s back seat.
Smith, who’s examining the exterior of the vehicle, says, “I’m not much for memorizing tide charts. Good you knew that.”
This one line from Stevie leaves Smith grimacing and rolling her eyes toward heaven. It’s not a crime to be an irritating parody of white male privilege, she reminds herself, continuing around the car.
Apart from the key stuck in the ignition, the sedan is empty. She’s never known a teenage girl with a car this clean. Her own vehicle is always spotless. No good can be found comparing herself to the corpse, so Smith, Stevie in tow, walks down the driver’s side toward the trunk.
A woman exits the back door of the hotel. “It’s about time you got here. I called about that car almost an hour ago.”
Smith walks over to the woman, taking in defining features. A streak of gray through straight brown hair. Green eyes. Small birthmark at her throat. Tattoo of an anchor on the inside of her ankle.
“I’m Detective Smith,” she says showing her badge, “I’m not here in response to your call, but I’ll try to help.”
Smith extends her hand and the woman shakes it. “I’m Alison. The breakfast half of the bed and breakfast.”
What are the odds this woman and the victim would share a name? Smith doesn’t see it, but she senses Stevie smirking. Smith almost bumps into her partner as she turns. She motions him back toward the car and asks the witness, “Can you give me one second?”
Walking over to Stevie, Smith instructs, “Get the techs up here. Call dispatch. Find out why no one’s responded. Do a circuit of the building. If you find something, radio me, but give me a chance to step away from her before you say anything.”
Her partner nods and walks around the side of the hotel. Feeling petty, Smith hopes he’s annoyed to be left out of questioning the witness.
She walks back to Alison and sees another castoff green frisbee on the hotel’s patio. “Can you tell me why you called the police?”
“I thought it was weird there was a car back here.” Like many witnesses Smith speaks to, she seems nervous. Glancing behind her. Folding her arms. “We only have one guest. It’s the off season, so the employees park up front. I saw a guy back here, and I thought he was sneaking onto the beach. I don’t usually call people in, but something seemed wrong.”
“Can you be more specific about what seemed wrong?”
Alison pauses before saying, “He started the car and pushed buttons. Opened the gas tank, turned on the wipers. He stopped when the trunk popped. I thought he should know how to open his own trunk.” Her eyes widen as if remembering, and she continues, “The 911 operator told me not to close it. Is that okay?”
“Absolutely, Alison. I wish half the people I talked to were half as helpful as you. Can you tell me anything else? Anything about the man? Height, weight, clothes?”
“It was dark, but he walked all hunched up. I thought he might be wet.”
A beep over the radio interrupts Alison’s story, and Stevie says, “Smith. I need backup. Now.”
There’s a vibrato of fear beneath the demand, and Smith chooses to ignore his failure to give her time to step away from the witness.
“Go back inside and lock the door. Make sure no one enters or leaves the building until an officer says it’s safe.”
Pushing the radio’s talk button, “What’s happening?”
“I found an officer injured in the alley. I have dispatch on my cell.”
Smith runs to the alley, a poorly lit gap between the hotel and a plank privacy fence that obscures the house next door. She keeps a hand on her gun until she spots her partner kneeling on the ground next to a young, male officer. He’s no more than a child. Neither of them is more than a child compared to Smith.
She looks at the officer, “What happened?”
“Dunno, ma’am. I came in response to the 911 call about the car. I saw this soaking wet guy, so I stopped to talk to him. He takes off. I followed him down here. He stabbed me.”
He seems to lose his train of thought. His eyes don’t focus, “I just ran after him. Left my radio and my phone in the car. It was stupid.”
“Why did you come alone?”
“We’re short this week.”
Stevie interrupts, “He’s lucky it’s cold.”
For the first time, Smith notices his teeth are chattering. Her partner has taken off his shirt and wears just his pea coat. His hands move expertly, tying strips of the shirt around the officer’s abdomen to keep pressure on the wound.
“Cold slows blood flow.”
Smith feels a stir of pride. Stevens might not be hopeless. “He’s lucky you found him. My first aid skills leave something to be desired.” Patting him on the shoulder, Smith says, “Nice work.”
A car drives past, illuminating a splash of green at the end of the alley. Smith walks that way, taking in her surroundings as she thinks through what must have happened. The man brought the officer down the alley to get out of sight. After the man stabbed the officer, he would have come back this way not onto the beach where he’d be exposed. At the end of the alley, Smith walks a few paces down the road to the left and sees only a row of houses. Moving back to the right, Smith sees the officer’s police car two blocks down.
She returns to the sidewalk in front of the alley and glances to the dumpster where the flash of neon green she spotted earlier reveals itself to be another frisbee. On the ground a few feet up the sidewalk, there’s a small metal box. She pulls on a latex glove and kneels to pick it up. It’s one of the magnetic hide-a-keys people put under their cars. She shakes it, hears nothing, and wonders if it held the key now stuck in the car’s ignition.
Some indistinct noise or movement to her right clangs an internal warning bell in Smith’s head. She stands up. There’s a man inches from her, holding a knife.
“Give me that.” He slurs around the bloodied gash of his mouth, gesturing at the box.
Smith tosses it toward him. The man leans over to grab the hide-a-key, and she draws her gun, aiming at his center as he stands. “One step, and I pull the trigger.”
He stops. “You a cop?”
“Detective. Put your hands in the air. You can drop the knife and that box too.”
“Fuck.” The man says, the hide-a-key and knife falling from his raising hands.
He’s closer now, and Smith sees his face is covered in claw marks. Eyes swollen. The salt water must have stung. That girl fought so hard. She should still be alive.
The corner of the building blocks her from seeing down the alley, so keeping her eyes and the gun trained on the suspect in front of her, Smith pushes her radio’s talk button. “Stevens, I need backup.”
She cuts him off. “Now, Stevens.”
She waits for what must be thirty seconds. Her hand twitches. She pushes the button again, “Stevens. Backup. Now.”
He doesn’t respond
Smith glances around the suspect, trying to see down the alley. The man moves toward her. “Don’t move,” she says returning her attention to him.
The man stays still, but he’s slightly closer.
Smith pushes the button again, “Stevens. This is serious. I need help.”
A few seconds later, he responds, “Can you hold on a second? I’m a little busy.”
Seizing the opportunity of her distraction, the suspect lunges toward her. Without a thought, Smith pulls the trigger.
Her partner runs around the corner from the alley, shouting, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave Officer…”
Smith waves away Stevie’s excuses, dropping to the ground beside the suspect. She tries to apply pressure to his chest. As her hands coat with this man’s pooling blood, she has little hope she can help him.
Protocol says you call your partner to do the handcuffing. Following protocol with a partner like hers is about as useful as having an extra arm in the middle of your ass. Smith thinks of what happens to her career now. Desk duty. Paper work. Therapy.
“Just let me explain.” Stevie continues talking like he thinks words make this right.
Pressing her hands to the chest wound, Smith stares at the frisbee on the dumpster lid.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
She almost can’t believe Stevie’s capacity to imagine his words matter when things have gone so wrong because of his actions. Smith’s rage boils. She breathes in, trying to calm herself. The scents of gun smoke and blood and the salt of ocean spray fill her nostrils. She’s the one who follows protocol, but it’s Stevie who comes out of this smelling like roses.
“At least he didn’t get away.”
Pressing bloodied palms to the ground, Smith rises to her feet and grabs her partner’s jaw in one bloody hand. It takes everything in her not to claw at his face and make him look as broken as the man on the ground. As her nails dig into his jaw, she uses her other hand to press the top of his head.
“Please, listen to me.” Her partner continues to talk around Smith’s attempts to physically shut his mouth.
Smith releases his face and pushes him hard with both hands against his chest emphasizing her words, “Shut. The. Fuck. Up.” She steps back from him, panting, “I’ve heard enough excuses. I asked you for help what three or four times? I could have died. Instead, I had to shoot a man. I hope like hell he deserved it, but your words don’t fix this. So, stop talking.”
Seeing he’s shivering in his pea coat, Smith softens fractionally, but she hisses through her teeth, “You needed to stay with the other officer, so get back there.”
Stevie looks like he wants to say more, but he walks back down the alley.
Returning to the dying man, Smith watches his body go still and his eyes turn to glass. A neon green glint bounces off their surface. Smith looks behind her at the frisbee. She leaves the dead man to his after-life.
She watches the frisbee almost convinced there’s only one, and it’s following her. A crime scene tech appears, placing bags over her hands to protect the evidence. An officer leads her to a patrol car, and sitting in the back, she glances out the rear window. A female crime scene tech fusses over Stevie. He laughs.
The detective feels certain her partner will get a promotion for saving that officer while she sits behind her desk. She faces forward with her hands at rest in her lap. Her body is evidence now.
The officer gets behind the wheel. They drive toward the fluorescent green frisbee. It feels like that discarded child’s toy begs her to pick it up. Throw it. Create a moment of joy.
I should have more fun.
Alex is a lifelong reader and writer of mystery stories who was raised on Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. She is a collector of books with inscriptions written to other people. She cherishes these books and their secrets. Contact @alexwerner20 on Twitter to contribute a book to the collection.