Traffic entering and exiting the Florida Keys was backed up for ten miles. Squad cars of every possible jurisdiction were parked on both sides of Highway 1, lights still flashing.
The temperature was a humid 82 Fahrenheit, but a breeze off Florida Bay kept most of the bugs to a minimum. Springtime in the Keys, nightfall was just a few hours away. Still, it was uncomfortable if you weren’t in the shade.
On the shoulder an ambulance waited, its doors open. Two paramedics leaned against the hood with their arms folded, watching everyone. From the report M.J. Kepke received, they wouldn’t be needed. Still, there was no harm in them hanging around if they didn’t receive another call.
MJ slammed the Jeep’s door and looked around. A Florida State Trooper stood next to a sign: ‘Crocodile Crossing.’ A young deputy sheriff barfed in the bushes. Two fishermen sat quietly in a battered skiff in the shallow water off Little Blackwater Sound. The water looked dark and sinister. They looked like conchs, men born in the Keys. They wore T-shirts, dirty shorts, and work boots. Intelligent but wary eyes followed her every move.
A few yards from them, a deputy with a smirk on his face guarded something in the shallow water. No doubt he thought she would lose her cookies.
MJ acknowledged him with a silent glance.
“Detective.” The young deputy in the mangroves cleared his throat and wiped his hand against his mouth. “It’s still snagged on his pole, ma’am. We haven’t touched it.”
She studied him for a moment. Normally his baby face was the color of coffee with a dab of cream, but now it was a sickly gray, and his eyes weren’t focused.
“Thanks, Jordan. Are you going to be all right?”
He took a deep breath and nodded.
With a fluid motion, she grabbed the back hem of her long calico skirt, brought it between her legs, and tucked it into the shell belt she wore. From the back of the jeep she pulled out a pair of rubber dive boots. She exchanged the boots for her feminine sandals. They were ugly, but worth every dime she paid for them. With careful steps she waded through the muck and mangrove roots to the deputy by the water.
“Deputy Anders.” Her voice was businesslike as she said his name.
Casually he answered, “MJ.”
“Detective Kepke,” she corrected, and glared at him.
He glared right back and waved toward the water. “That’s it.”
He pointed at a fishing pole propped against a mangrove root. Something white that reeked of death was caught on a hook.
With a graceful motion, she squatted on her heels and stared at what appeared to be a hand and part of an arm. It was bloated, the bone showed on the arm, and the odor made her gag. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard to keep from puking. After regaining her composure, she noticed the fingernails were torn to the quick, a trace of scarlet nail polish seeming to cry for attention.
She turned her head and took a deep breath.
Anders put his hands on his hips. “Looks like a croc or gator got her, or it could have been a shark.”
MJ stood and met his eyes. “Maybe, but I have a feeling she was dead before that happened.”
With a challenge he asked, “Why?”
“It’s been a while since her last manicure. The nails are ripped and it looks like ligature marks on the wrist. The lab will be able to tell us more.”
Anders took a closer look. “Good call.”
Kepke ignored his compliment. “Have the crime and marine units been called?”
“Affirmative. FHP is sending units too. You think the body’s still out there?”
MJ thought for a moment, then shook her head. “I doubt there’s much left of her to find. I’d say that hand has been in the water for a while.”
He cleared his throat. “First time I’ve seen anything like this.”
“It doesn’t get any easier.” She nodded toward the skiff. “I guess I’d better go talk to them. Guard the remains until the techs take over, then help the other deputies with the traffic.”
His expression showed he didn’t like her orders, but he didn’t argue.
She ignored him and walked toward the skiff. One fisherman elbowed the other as she approached.
“You the two that called it in?”
One of the men leered at her breasts. “Yes, ma’am. I’m Greg Young—” he jabbed a thumb in the direction of the other guy—“he’s Malcolm Wright. ”
She hated men who eyed her like that, looking no further than her outward appearance. She’d worked too hard to get where she was on the force. Frustrated, she shot him a look meant to freeze water.
“It’s Detective Sergeant Kepke from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department.” She put her hand next to the badge and holster on her belt.
The scumbag ducked his head.
“Where do you work?” The hooks and lines on their poles were too large for snapper, and it looked like a bang stick was hidden under a life vest. Definitely poachers.
Gruffly, Greg answered, “We’re both handymen for Oceanside.”
MJ nodded. “Tell me how you caught it.”
Malcolm coughed. “Not much to tell. We were fishing about fifty feet out when we snagged it. Soon as we saw what it was, we called the cops. I threw out that float to mark the spot. It’s attached to a line with weights.”
An old bleach bottle floated nearby in the water.
“That was smart.”
The smirk was back on the man’s face. “We figured you’d want to know where we found it. What do you think happened?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. How long were you out here?”
Malcolm scratched the whiskers on his chin. “I’d say ’bout an hour. Our day ended at three and we wanted to catch a few snappers.”
They were lying about the fish, but that was the least of her problems. No doubt they were up to something illegal, but right now she had her hands full. “Wait here a minute. Deputy Jordan will take your statements.”
The young deputy had stopped puking, and she met him a few yards from the skiff. “You okay now, Jordan?”
His eyes were focused but his starched shirt was stained with perspiration. It was his first month on the job.
She tilted her head toward the two men. “Can you take their statements for me?”
“Sure, MJ. Sorry, I mean, Detective.”
Hopefully giving him something to do would keep his mind off the grisly remains.
“Thanks, Jordan. It’s going to be a long night.” She walked toward the lights to wait for the crime and marine units. It would be a waste of time to drag for a body, but it had to be done.