Fatima

by Karl Miller

Prologue – July 15, 2005

Terry Walsh finished clearing the third row of the empty lot when he’d had enough.  He jumped down from the yellow Komatsu bulldozer and headed straight for the portable toilet that sat fifty yards away by the construction site trailer.  A moment after the flimsy door sprang shut loudly behind him, he vomited down a hole into the sitting waste, the smell of which was not adequately concealed by the faint disinfectant odor. 

A rap on the door.  “Terry, you doin’ all right?”

He wiped his mouth.  “Yeah, just ate something bad for breakfast.” 

“All right, man.  Let’s just get this job done, okay?”

Terry walked out and nodded to Felix Ortega, his supervisor.  Ortega was balding, paunchy, in his early fifties. 

“Just get it together, all right?” Ortega said in a sympathetic tone and headed to the Sawgrass Shores Developers trailer that sat about twenty yards from the edge of Naranja Parkway. 

As Walsh climbed back aboard the machine, sunlight suddenly flashed off the ground in the middle of the row he had just finished. He stepped back down and walked over to the spot– and froze. Quickly peering around the lot to make sure no one else had seen, he bent down and looked closely then kicked dirt over the spot. He headed to the trailer, a narrow tan portable building with a single window that faced the water. Walsh opened the door and looked toward the desk on the far end of the long room, past the construction plans that hung on the wall.

“Felix, I found something you need to see.”

Ortega sighed and stood up from behind the desk. “This better not be wasting my time.”

The two walked across the lot past stacks of construction supplies and the fallen-in remains of a small hut.

“It’s over here,” Walsh said.  Looking around again, he carefully toed the dirt from his find.

“Whoa!” Felix said softly, recoiling in surprise. 

Walsh bent down and reached toward it.  “How much do you think this is worth?”

“Are you stupid? Don’t touch it!” he said, immediately regretting his tone as he looked at the stung expression on Walsh’s face.  “Sorry– I’m just a little freaked out.”  He paused.  “I have no idea how much it’s worth.  Just cover that up again, all right?” He hesitated.  “Did you tell anyone about this?” Ortega asked as Walsh moved the soil.

“No, no one.  I literally just found it five minutes ago.  Everyone’s at lunch.”

“Are you sure? 

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“OK– look, just sit tight.  I know a guy who can take care of this. Let me make a call and see how we want this done.  Come with me over to the trailer.” 

Once inside, Walsh gestured to a chair by the door.

“Just sit over here.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

Felix walked to the desk on other side of the trailer, sat and made a call.

Walsh fidgeted until he returned.

“I’ve got it handled. I need you to be back here tonight, around nine, and we’ll meet someone who will get rid of it.”

“Got it.”

“And Terry– keep your mouth shut. This is a big deal.  You did right for us, and management’s not going to forget about it.”

<<<<>>>>

At six-thirty the following morning, Suzanne Finch passed by the construction site as she finished the fourth mile of her daily run.  Looking out at the water, she stopped short. 

Next to an overturned fourteen-foot aluminum fishing boat, its engine blade stopped in a last futile cut at the air, two fully-clothed bodies, face down, gently moved back and forth with the motion of the waves.

Her hand went to her mouth in shock then she pulled out a black Nokia N95 and dialed 911.

Chapter 1 – August 29, 2005

When Kevin and Lara Pierce exited the American flight from Jacksonville, the summer heat in the jet bridge at Miami International welcomed them. They picked up a blue Civic from Enterprise, drove to a Marriott on Bayshore and checked into a seventh floor room that overlooked a crowded Olympic-size pool.  Kevin Pierce sat at the desk and took out a file from his briefcase while Lara changed in the bathroom.

After she headed down to the pool, he returned to the hotel parking garage and drove to the construction site, down a Naranja Parkway lined with massive banyan trees and even larger Spanish style mansions. He parked alongside the road, grabbed his camera and briefcase, walked onto the lot and started taking pictures.

“Can I help you?”

Pierce turned and saw a wiry man in his late forties wearing Aviators approaching. “Sure, I’m Kevin Pierce, from Northeast Florida Claims Service. We were hired by National American Development Insurance to investigate the deaths of Terry Walsh and Felix Ortega.”

“Right, HR said you’d be coming.” Gomez looked at the insurance investigator and saw a man in his early 30s, a shade under six feet tall, with tan skin, light brown eyes, and close-cropped hair, the product of a second generation Irish-American father and a Jamaican mother. The two shook hands. “Eduardo Gomez. I’m the manager on the project.”

“You mind if I ask some questions?

“No, that’s fine. Most of the info you can get off the police report, though.”

“True. I have a copy but there were some other things I wanted to ask about.”

“Sure. What do you need?”

Pierce extracted a small recorder from his briefcase. “OK if I record this?”

“Actually, I’d rather you didn’t. Is it mandatory?”

“No, your choice.”

Pierce put the recorder back and took out a notepad and pen. “When was the last time you saw the deceased?”

“At work, the Friday before they found the bodies.”

“What time?

“4 p.m. We normally end at five but we break early on Fridays.”

“So Ortega reported directly to you and Walsh reported to Ortega, correct?”

“That’s right.”

“Did you give him any direction to stay later that day?

“No, at quitting time, we all took off. Same as usual on a Friday.”

“Would it ever be allowed for a worker to come back on his own, after everyone else had left?

“Not to my knowledge. I suppose a supervisor could do it, but Ortega should have asked me first.”

“Had Mr. Walsh ever worked late before?”

“Rarely. There were some occasions when we needed to put in some extra hours, but that Friday wasn’t one of those days.”

“The report showed heroin in their systems. Any knowledge of them using hard drugs?”

“Nah, they just liked to drink, Walsh in particular. The heroin in the police report was a real surprise. We didn’t really socialize and it wasn’t my job to monitor what they did on their own time. But two guys overdosing? Doesn’t seem like it could be true.”

“Who else worked with them usually?”

“People would come and go but Bill Malone was usually on that crew.”

“I’d like to talk with him, if that’s possible.”

“He’s scheduled to be off today. With the hurricane scares and the investigation, we’re really behind. Things aren’t going to crank up until next week when we– finally– pour the foundation and get this thing moving.” Gomez gave Pierce the address.

“OK. Anything else about Mr. Walsh or Mr. Ortega that may be useful?”

“No, not really. It’s just a shame– a real bizarre shame. They both left behind wives– Ortega a couple of kids, too. The funerals were rough. And now, having ambulance chasers try to make this into a work comp matter?” He shook his head. “If you don’t have any other questions, I’ve got a ton of stuff to go through.”

“No, that’s it. Thanks for your help.” The two shook hands again and Gomez headed back to the trailer. Pierce walked the beach, taking photos and carefully looking over the area before heading to his car.

When he returned to the Marriott, Kevin went to dinner with Lara then checked the internet for information. A local news video with a young brunette reporter showed some footage of early details of the find. Later, the channel had another video about the heroin revelation.

Commissioner Smith, a local developer and member of the Harbor Bay Shores City Commission, solemn and perfectly groomed with his gray-flecked hair gelled into place, made some obligatory comments to the reporter– “This tragic incident shows the toll illegal drugs are taking on our community. It hits particularly close to home since one of the victims went to high school with me. Both men left behind loved ones that are going to have to live with this. As a city, we have to do better.” Pierce located the obituaries, which were innocuous summaries of ordinary lives.

Chapter 2 – March 22, 1967

The click of her cane against the sidewalk stopped when Fatima left the concrete.  She walked another few yards on a dirt path to reach a simple one-room hut hidden from sight by palm trees on the Naranja Parkway side, and wild sea grape bushes on the Biscayne side. She was thin, of average height, and wore a black dress with a black veil that covered her face. Opening the door, she laid her cane against the wall, then struck a match and proceeded to light a row of red-glassed votive candles.

The flickering light illuminated a crucifix on a small altar in front of her.  A white marble statue of the Virgin Mary stood on the wall to her left – to the right was a wooden statue of St. Rose of Lima, the artist capturing a thin trickle of blood from the iron crown of thorns she wore under a garland of roses.  Fatima walked to the simple wooden kneeler in front of the crucifix and began to pray silently with a clear glass rosary. 

After an hour in the quiet, she stood, extinguished the candles, and walked back to the 1963 white Studebaker Avanti she had left parked by the side of the road.   Fatima drove about a mile to Santa Rosa de Lima, an imposing Gilded Age church that took up an entire block and was topped by an ornate brick superstructure that was itself capped with an impressive steeple overlooking 2nd Street. Fatima entered then walked to the front altar, and down the steps to its left that led to a meeting hall.

A line of about twenty people watched her carefully as she walked past them to a small room at the back, her veil moving slightly as her cane touched the polished wooden floor.

“Hello, Fatima,” said an elderly priest who stood by the door to a back room. “Quite a few today for you.  Are you up to this?”

“Yes, it’s fine.  Give me a moment please,” she said, walking into the small mahogany-paneled room.

Fatima closed the door, knelt in prayer for a moment, then sat in a green leather chair. 

There was a knock, then a heavy woman in her early 40s wearing a yellow dress entered and sat in a chair opposite the girl. She wouldn’t look at her directly.

“Hello. How are you?” Fatima asked in Spanish.

“I have pain in my knees, sometimes so bad I can’t move. But I don’t have money for surgery. Can you help?”

“I can do nothing, but the Spirit may.”  She reached out and touched the visitor’s knee.  Closing her eyes, Fatima focused intensely.  After a minute, a light glow began to show from under the edges of her veil.  The woman watched with a mixture of fascination, hope, and fear. A moment later, Fatima removed her hands. 

“Much better. God bless you,” the woman said, smiling.  As she walked out, the priest gave her a small medal with a dove on one side and a simple cross on the other. “To remember this favor,” he said.

Fatima took a deep breath and focused before the next knock.  The damaged kept coming. And their numbers were increasing.  

Chapter 3 – March 22, 1967

After Apollo Shining finished their short set at Miami Marine Stadium, their singer skipped the party tent and instead called a cab. Eric Sky– a stage name his manager insisted upon– had the driver take him over the Rickenbacker Causeway on a circuitous nostalgic route past places he frequented as a kid– Wolfies on Collins, Burdines on Flagler, past the rows of tall hotels and finally to the Royal Isabela, a 1920s Art Deco palace set on sweeping, perfect lawns dotted with impressive palm trees. He checked in, walked through the ornate lobby and took the elevator to the eighth floor. 

After a shower, he extracted a special package from a hidden compartment in his suitcase and began performing his ritual.  Eric sat on the edge of the bed, put the powder into his special gold spoon, heated it with a lighter, and extracted the resulting liquid with a syringe.  As he pressed the plunger, there was an instant where he felt something animalistic and translucent in the shadows of the room, watching him intently. His mind went back to the last time he had felt that sensation of someone– something– watching him. It was two years earlier, right before he put his then-girlfriend on a plane to New York, when he had lied to her about staying with her no matter what. And then his mind went to the times that sensation had been present even before then, to the first time, when he was a child and bit off the head of a lizard when no one was watching then stared at the lifeless body before spitting out the severed part and trying to rejoin it to the remains. He remembered the horrified look on his aunt’s face when she found him; Eric learned after that to hide those dark impulses. A connection began to arrive in his mind right before the chemical started sweeping through him but it was too disturbing to consider so he pushed it aside and went with the more pleasant flow as a thin heaven overtook him.

Chapter 4 – March 23, 1967

About two the following afternoon, Eric was hungry and headed down to the lobby. He stopped in the small sundries store and picked up a bottle of Coke from a small refrigerator.  As he turned to pay, shrieking suddenly broke out behind him.

“It’s him!” a group of girls in their early teens screamed and rushed toward the singer, who left the soda on the counter and promptly sprinted out the door.  He took a corner at full speed and banged open the first door he saw.

In front of a mirror stood a thin girl in her late teens wearing a white dress.  She had shoulder length brown hair over strong, perfect eyebrows, and the most striking face Eric had ever seen. Startled, she looked over at him with piercing dark eyes and quickly pulled down a veil.

“Sorry,” he said and smiled with breathless charisma, “but . . .”

Before he finished the sentence, the door burst open again and the girls rushed in, surrounding the star.

“Girls! Quiet down!”  the thin girl scolded in a Spanish alto that took Eric as an alluring surprise.

Immediately the girls stopped, but only for a moment.  “Fatima, do you know who this is?” the tallest girl said excitedly in English.  “He has to come sing for us!” she said.  “Yes, sing for us!” the group pleaded.

They grabbed his arms and pulled him out the ladies’ room door.  The star laughed and shrugged at Fatima as they dragged him down the hallway and into a long ballroom with a series of stone arches across a tall ceiling lit by two enormous black iron chandeliers. About a hundred elegantly dressed guests turned at once and looked at him.  The girls brought their prey to a heavy-set bald man in his early fifties wearing a black tuxedo and a frown.

“Papi, this is a famous singer. He’s here to sing for us,” they said in Spanish.

“Hello,” Eric said, sticking out his hand to the man who shook it with a slight look of disapproval as he evaluated the tall intruder with his long wavy brown hair and pale blue eyes. 

The girls shrieked again and pushed the star across the room toward the stage. The band was on a break so the raised platform was vacant.  Eric pointed to an acoustic guitar resting on a stand. “OK?” he mouthed to a nearby band member who grinned and gave a thumbs up. 

The star climbed up on the stage and picked up the Martin sunburst.  He strummed it a couple of times then sat with his legs dangling off the edge.  The noise died down and all heads in the room again turned toward him, including the mysterious veiled girl who he noticed was now sitting at a table in the back.

“I’m Eric.  My new friends here,” he said, gesturing to the girls, “asked me to sing and I didn’t think I could possibly say no. I hope you like this.” He fingered a D minor chord then started playing “No Goodbyes.”

I never knew you well enough
But it’s still hard to leave

There was more for us, I believe
And I hate to say goodbye

He sang in a clear tenor, surprising himself by getting a bit emotional as he worked his way through a song he’d performed literally hundreds of times.  Looking around the room, he found himself continually glancing at the veiled girl.  He noticed she was in quiet conversation with another person at her table, a large matronly woman in pearls and a dark blue dress.

When he finished singing, it was quiet for a moment – until the girls erupted into a new round of screaming. 

“Thank you.  Very best wishes to the happy couple.  So very cool,” Eric said, handing the guitar to a returning musician.  The band launched into “Guananey” and the girls began dancing, seemingly forgetting about their guest.  Relieved, he walked to the back table by the window that overlooked a long pool lined with white statues of goddesses standing in between each of a dozen pillars. As he approached, the two women stopped talking and looked at him noncommittally.

“Hi, I’m Eric,” he said with the broad introductory smile he seldom found to fail.

“So I heard,” the girl said impassively

“Sorry about that scene before.” He paused. “You are . . .?”

“Fatima,” she said. Then she gestured to the woman. “And this is my Tia Ana.”

Eric smiled again at them.

“Is it all right if I sit here for a moment?” he asked.

“If you wish,” she said with a slight Spanish accent. 

“So, how do you figure into this?” he said, gesturing to the wedding guests.

“My cousin is the one getting married.” Fatima said nothing for a moment.  “So I gather you play music for a living?”

“Yeah, well, I thought I’d give it a shot.  To be honest, it’s not going too great.  I’ll probably try it another year then go to college.  Maybe UM, maybe Gainesville. Maybe even law school after that.”  He paused.  “So, what do you do?”

“I’m finishing up my last year at school.  Then I’ll probably go to college, too.”

Eric hesitated. “I have to ask – why on earth do you wear a veil over a face so beautiful?”

Fatima stammered.  “I would prefer to not discuss it.” She abruptly stood up. “And now I should go see my cousin,” she said.  The singer watched in surprise as she quickly picked up her cane and started walking away across the room.

“She was in a car accident when she was young,” a young voice said.  Eric turned around and saw one of the girls from the group that accosted him.  “Hi – I’m Inez, Fatima’s cousin.” She was subdued now that she was by herself and the earlier excitement had dimmed. They shook hands and Eric smiled at her suddenly ladylike manners. “Her parents brought her over from Cuba when she was young. The car accident was a few years later. Both her parents were killed, and Fatima’s leg was badly broken.”

“Wow, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Fatima lives alone now in the family home. Her aunt stayed for a while but moved out not long ago. She likes the solitude.” Inez paused as though judging how much to say. “She’s very religious.”

He was about to respond when he suddenly had a strong craving, and the thought of extended conversation strained against it. After a few more moments of innocuous talk, Eric excused himself and headed back to his room. The RCA console TV played on mute, as Dream Girl of 1967 contestants competed silently in black and white. This time, as he started to slide into euphoria, he felt the grotesque figure watching again, but now near enough that he could feel it right by the side of the bed, so close he could almost reach out and touch it.

As the chemicaled dream progressed, Fatima’s veil was off. He kept reaching for her, but she always turned her beautiful face away. 

Chapter 5 – August 30, 2005

Lara’s nightmare changed.

The first part did not. The patrol still walked down the side street at dusk, the smell of cumin heavy in the air as residents cooked dinner. And then the street ripped apart, and she found herself staring up at the night sky, her ears ringing from the blast, her mouth tasting metal. The explosive’s tar-like odor was now the only thing she smelled, accompanied by the horror-filled sensation of seeing two shrapnel wounds, one in her right leg and the other in her side. And then the disjointed, alarmed yelling as help arrived.

“. . . the bleeding . . .”

“Why didn’t they . . .”

Followed by the quiet female voice, “Hang in there, Lara. We’ll get this fixed.”

The part of the dream in the hospital changed. The masked faces still looked down at her, distorted by anesthesia as they worked below a cloth that blocked her line of sight. But now there was a strange glow in the corner of the operating room that she didn’t remember before. Seeing the soft light, the horror strangely lessened, and she relaxed just a little as the nightmare surgeons worked and even when the soft voices promised sterility.

At this point, as usual, she woke sweating and made her way through darkness to the bathroom.

Half an hour later, Kevin Pierce’s eyes opened slowly.  In the dim pre-dawn light, he saw Lara standing in front of the dresser mirror on the other side of the room.  About five feet ten, she wore workout clothes – bicycle shorts and a loose-fitting t-shirt – and had the shirt pulled up over her stomach.  Lara stared into the mirror at the keloid scarring that ran in a jagged nine-inch line along her abdomen, tracing her left index finger along it before slowly lowering her shirt. 

Her husband let a couple of moments pass before moving.  “Hey, if you’re running, give me a minute and I’ll join you.”  

Kevin put on shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of black Sauconys– Lara had on a pair of light blue Brooks. They went out the lobby and ran over the Rickenbacker Causeway and a stunning Biscayne Bay before returning to the hotel to cool down at a table by the pool.

“You haven’t lost a step,” Kevin said, gasping for breaths and consciously avoiding looking at the four-inch scar shrapnel had left on her lower right leg.

“Sure, I haven’t,” she said skeptically. “Come on. We both know I lost more than a step in the war.”

“B.S. You’re definitely faster than when you went into the military.”

“You don’t have to say that, Kevin. I appreciate it but you really don’t need to pump me up. The rehab team did a great job. I’m fine.”

He shrugged. “Well, you know if you hadn’t been at the VA hospital when I was there on a claim, you may have never met me– and then where would your life have been? I saw you walking around on crutches and figured you couldn’t get away.”

Lara threw her towel at him. “You’re such an idiot.”

They smiled at each other for a moment then went back up to the room. Kevin showered then drove to Bill Malone’s apartment, on the second story of a run-down complex with a sign that started with Tropical but the rest had faded away. A girl in her late teens with a shaved head stared at him as she walked by with a baby on her shoulder and a pit bull on a steel chain. He found unit 213, knocked, and after a moment, Bill Malone came to the door.

He was a ragged mid-thirties, wearing a stained Dolphins t-shirt and had an open can of Busch Light in his hand. He looked at Pierce dubiously. “What’s up?”

“I’m from the insurance company for Sawgrass Shores. We’re doing some background checks so we can process benefits for Felix Ortega and Terry Walsh and I was told you could tell me something about them.”

“Oh, yeah, right,” he said. “Come on in,” he added, and led Pierce to an old kitchen table. Call of Duty 2 sat on pause in the main room of the apartment. “Like, what do you want to know?”

Pierce sat down across from him and recorded an interview that said nothing different than what he already knew about the work situation.

“I hate asking this type of stuff, but we have to investigate anytime something like this happens. Do you know if either of the decedents had issues with substance abuse?”

“Well, I didn’t know Felix Ortega at all, but I knew Walsh a bit. We’ve lived in the same complex for the last three years. Just down the stairs.” Malone gestured to a stairwell a few feet away.

“Did you ever know him to take any drugs?”

“Nah. Maybe he smoked a little weed here and there but he didn’t do anything serious.”

Pierce continued. “When was the last time you spoke with him?

“The Friday before they found him. He was talking some weird stuff, which was typical – he actually believed in UFOs and vampires. Anyway, he told me something secret happened at the site he was working. He said it was a big deal but he couldn’t talk about it.”

“So he didn’t say what it was?

“Nah.”

“Not even a hint?”

“The only thing he did say was that if it all went well, he wouldn’t have to work again for a while.” Pierce makes a puzzled expression then resumed questioning.

“Walsh was married, correct?”

“Right. She’s a cop. They never really got along too well. I heard them screaming at each other a couple of times. Not the usual husband-and-wife arguing, but really heated. She’s in really good shape– I think she kickboxes or something– and she smacked him around. I felt bad for them but it wasn’t my place to say anything, you know?”

“I hear you. Can you think of anything else that may be relevant?

“No, that’s about all of it.”

Pierce finished the interview then feigned forgetfulness. “I forgot to ask– is his car still here?” Malone led Pierce out the front door of the apartment to an exterior corridor that overlooked the parking lot. “Yep, his blue Ford F150 is right there,” he said, pointing to it. “And Kim’s Miata is next to it.”

“Well, thanks again,” Pierce said, and headed back to his car. As he walked slowly past Walsh’s apartment, he noticed a slight movement in the curtains.

Pierce got in the Honda then drove a couple of blocks away until he was out of view of the apartment complex. He waited ten minutes then returned, parking in a McDonald’s across the street where he could watch the Miata.

At 12:50 p.m., Kim Walsh left her apartment and walked to her car. She was thin, about thirty years old, a badly bleached blonde, wearing a blue police uniform with sleeves that were tight on her well-toned arms.

Pierce, his Nikon resting behind a hole in a newspaper, snapped a series of pictures as she walked to her car. He started up the Civic and carefully began to trail the Miata as it exited the apartment complex and started driving south on Bayshore Drive.

Kim Walsh drove to an Eckerd drugstore near South Bayshore hospital and went inside.

A moment later, Pierce parked a few cars away from the Miata and walked into the store. Afternoon stillness hung in the air. There were just a handful of customers so it took only a moment for Pierce to locate Walsh in the greeting card aisle. He watched surreptitiously for a moment, pretending to look at aftershave before walking over to the cards. Close up, she was a faded pretty and had a jaded, hard air about her. Stopped by the romantic cards, she picked one up, read it and smiled. Pierce looked at birthday cards for a minute then moved to the next aisle and pretended to examine batteries as he stood directly opposite her.

After a moment, he heard her phone tone.

“Hi baby,” she said. “No, just out and about. I have to go on duty in an hour and a half.”

There was a pause.

“I hate waiting like this, too,” she said. A pause. “Is that an official governmental order?” she responded flirtatiously. Another pause. “Well, that’s not a lot of time but let me see what I can do.” She dragged out the “but” and laughed.

Pierce heard her end the call and watched as she walked to the register with her card then headed back outside to her car.

Giving her a safe lead, he followed Kim Walsh to a single-story faded pink hotel off a side street. He parked across the road in a 7-11 parking lot and watched as she exited the Miata, walked to Unit 6 and knocked on the door. Clicking away with his Nikon, Pierce captured every moment as the door opened and a man looking remarkably like Commissioner Smith hurriedly pulled her inside.

Chapter 6 – March 24, 1967

When Fatima walked out the main doors of Santa Rosa de Lima Church after the Good Friday service, a small line of people waited. Fatima patiently stood off to the left, out of the way of the crowd, and let the line approach. Her cousins, Veronica and Inez, flanked her.

Three people, in turn, talked quietly to her. She listened to each, nodding, then touched them gently on the forehead. The fourth person came forward apprehensively.

“You healed my daughter a few weeks ago,” she began in English.

“I don’t heal anyone,” Fatima answered. “The Spirit does.”

“In any case, she had run away and was living on the streets doing God knows what for three months. The day after I spoke with you, she returned.”

“That’s nice to hear,” Fatima said.

The woman reached into her purse. “I’d like you to take this,” she said, extracting a small box wrapped in gold paper.

“I can’t accept gifts.”

“Please,” she said, a slightly desperate tone in her voice. “I just want to help you in the work you do.”

“Thank you,” Veronica said, and reached over to take the package. “That was very generous of you.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” the woman answered. Fatima blessed her and she moved on.

Three other people – two women and an elderly man – followed. Fatima spoke briefly to each. As they left, Eric strode up.

Inez smiled and gave him a small wave.

“Seems you’re very popular,” Eric said with a smile.

Fatima shrugged and looked down.

“What is it about you that’s so damn attractive? I can’t stay away either,” Eric said, with a mischievous grin. “I figured I wasn’t the only one but an actual line? Very impressive.”

“It’s not supposed to be impressive,” Fatima said flatly. “These people need help.”

“Well, I need help too,” Eric smiled.

She looked at him skeptically. “Why are you here?”

“Well, a little birdie told me you’d be out here, and I had to see you again.”

“I’m sorry,” Inez spoke up. “I told him we always went to Mass here.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” Fatima said, “but I don’t think we have anything to talk about.”

Veronica moved in between them protectively. “My cousin is tired and needs to go home. Please do not bother her anymore.”

“I’m not meaning to bother her,” Eric said apologetically, trying to slide around Veronica. “I’m sincerely captivated by you,” he said, in a voice that suddenly actually did seem sincere.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I have to go now,” Fatima said and headed toward the parking lot with her cousins. Eric frowned slightly then walked to his rented silver Corvette.

Chapter 7 – August 30-31, 2005

When Kevin Pierce returned to the Marriott around four in the afternoon and gave Lara a recap of the day.

“Well, the fact– if it’s true– that she was cheating on her husband doesn’t necessarily mean she was involved in his death. You’re making one plus one equal three.”

“Why would these guys take out a boat to their worksite? And Walsh supposedly talking about coming into money? And then he’s dead?”

“They probably found a stash, partied too hard with it, flipped the boat and killed themselves,” Lara said.

“Maybe they got killed by someone who tried to make it look like an overdose.”

“In which case, let the police deal with it. I’m sure they checked all this.”

“They didn’t hear what I heard the widow say.”

“Probably meant to let some time go by after her husband died for her to openly date the commissioner.”

They were quiet for a moment before Kevin spoke.

“What if we get them to talk about it?”

Lara looked at him doubtfully. “Sure, let’s just call them right now.”

“No, listen,” Kevin said, “if they’re paranoid right now, we could use that. We can get both their email addresses online. Just send messages to each that make them worry they’re about to be caught and make it look like they’re each coming from the other.”

“But they’re not.”

“Even if the addresses are one letter off, it’ll be enough to get them to play along.” Pierce paused for a moment then typed a short email.

We need to talk. Meet at the site at 11 tonight. Do not try to reach me.

“You’ve watched too much TV,” she said dubiously. “OK, so we– I– send it. Then what?”

“I’ll leave my work phone on in the trailer so we can hear everything they say and record it. I just go in after they leave, grab the phone, give the info to the police anonymously and we’re done.”

“I can think of so many ways this is not smart,” she sighed. “But I agree that something shady may be going on. And if this will get you to stop obsessing, then I’ll do it.”

When they went back to the hotel room, Lara sat down on the bed with a laptop, put on a pair of tortoiseshell glasses and started typing.

Chapter 8 – September 1, 2005

At 9 p.m., Pierce drove past the construction site. The trailer was dark, as was the rest of the premises. He went along the beach for about a quarter mile then pulled off the road by an undeveloped lot still covered with trees.

He looked to make sure no one was in sight then exited the car with a scuba bag and picked his way carefully through the underbrush to the water’s edge. Wearing a black wetsuit, he waded in the water up to his knees, sat on the sand and donned his gear. After testing his equipment, he went out further then began to swim in the darkness until he was two hundred yards off the beach. Keeping his mask just at the level of the calm water, he swam along the beach until he approached the construction site.

Pierce cautiously came out of the surf and walked behind a tall pile of lumber. He pulled off his scuba gear, threw it in a mesh bag and hid it by one of the rocks. Carrying a small waterproof pouch, he walked over to the trailer which was only dimly revealed by the single street light fifty yards down the street.

He went to the door and used a lock-picking kit which opened it in seconds. Walking inside, he pulled out his phone and used its light to find his way to the main desk. Pierce got on his back, dialed Lara then placed the phone on a ledge under the desk. Standing, he used his other phone to call her and test the sound. He went back outside, hid behind the lumber and waited.

Chapter 9 – March 24, 1967

At ten in the evening, Fatima was in the hut at the beach, kneeling before the crucifix and praying the third Sorrowful Mystery of the Rosary.

“Hello,” Eric said in an upbeat voice as he stuck his head in the door. “I knocked but . . .”

Fatima whirled around, a light glow showing from under her veil as she stood.

“I . . .” Eric stammered.

“You need to leave– now!” Fatima said in a barely controlled voice.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked in amazement.

The glow began to dissipate. “I don’t think you’d understand,” Fatima said. “How did you get here anyhow?”

“Something told me . . .” Eric began, trying to regain composure, defaulting to his charming voice, but then he stopped, suddenly finding it not so funny but instead troubling that he logically couldn’t explain how his 1965 Corvette had gotten him there. Again, it had been like a dream, with the grotesque figure whispering the route. It couldn’t have been real– and yet there he was. “I, I . . .” he stuttered, then he saw the figure again in the shadows just outside the door. It was smiling this time– a greasy, disturbing grin.

“Please go,” Fatima said quietly.

“This is just weird. Really weird. How did you do that trick, with the light under your veil?”

Fatima shook her head. “If you’re not going, then I need to leave,” she said angrily, grabbing her cane.

As she went to move past him, she tripped over his shoe and fell awkwardly and hard, her head striking the door frame. When she hit the ground facedown, she didn’t move.

Eric stared at her for a second. “Come on, stand up,” he said, with a slight quaver entering his voice. “Seriously, stop playing.” He reached down and pushed her shoulder but she didn’t react. A small trickle of blood came from her left ear.

He suddenly caught sight of the figure, now plainly visible, with an enormous grin on its face as it slowly and soundlessly clapped. The next hour passed in another vision like the one that got him to the hut, this time the figure wordlessly directing him to pull the body through the woods to a spot where a pre-dug hole waited in the sand. Eric dropped Fatima’s body by the edge of it and pushed her into the grave. A box wrapped in gold paper fell out and split open, spilling gold medals as her body slid downward. He pushed them on top of her before frantically pushing sand over the spot and covering it with palm branches. It was only when he was a mile away that the dream aspect faded, and reality came down with crushing heaviness. Eric Smith pulled off the side of the road and vomited all over the black leather passenger seat of the silver Corvette.

Chapter 10 – September 1, 2005

At the construction site, Commissioner Smith arrived in a silver Lexus IS250. He exited and walked to the trailer, unlocked the door and entered. Smith turned on the light, pulled out his phone and looked at it, then sat at the desk and stared at the door. A moment later, another car came onto the property.

Kim Walsh exited her car and walked to the trailer. When she entered, Smith looked at her quizzically.

“Well?”

“Well what?” Kim replied.

“Why this little dramatic meeting?”

“You tell me. You’re the one who asked for it.”

“Me? What are you talking about?”

“Did you not ask to meet me here?”

“No, I did not. You emailed me to meet you here at eleven.” He looked at his phone closely then looked up. “Actually, this isn’t your email address. It’s slightly off. By a single letter.” He paused, wheels turning in his head. “Maybe you didn’t send this– but obviously someone did that knows. Did you tell someone?”

“Hell, no. I didn’t tell anyone.”

“Then how did someone know to send this?”

“I have no idea.”

“If you’re trying to play me, it’s not going to work. We’re both in this together.”

“I know we are, baby. Believe me,” she said with a pleading tone.

“Maybe you’re just greedy and want a payout.”

Stung, she took a step backward. “I killed two people for you. One of them was my husband. I forced them at gunpoint onto the boat, cuffed them, drugged them then let them drown– for you. Do you know what that was like, swimming back to shore in the dark after I murdered two people?”

“It’s not like you aren’t happy he’s gone.”

“Wow,” she said, barely containing her anger, “did you really just say that? I basically left him for you. And when you told me no one could know what they found, I didn’t question it. I took care of it, even though I don’t know why some bones . . .” She suddenly stopped. “Why was it so important to get rid of them?” She paused again. “Oh. . . .” She stopped again.

“What?”

“There was more to just having the police stop your company’s project, more than them looking into some random dead body, wasn’t there?” She stared at him. “Who was it?”

“What are you talking about?”

Smith suddenly looked to the corner and saw the shadowy grotesque figure again, like a nightmare long gone that suddenly returned. It watched him and nodded encouragingly.

“What are you looking at?” she asked, somehow feeling the presence of something that was helping pull the situation out of control. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you acting so strange?”

Smith started to talk as though under a spell, staring at the corner as his words came out. “You pathetic bitch– you’d actually blackmail me?”

The figure nodded more vigorously, its whole body shaking.

Kim Walsh suddenly lunged toward Smith and punched him hard in the jaw with a straight left, throwing him back out of the chair and into the trailer wall. He reached down and pulled a Beretta 92 from his jacket and pulled the trigger, hitting her in the right thigh. As she collapsed onto the floor, she grabbed the Colt Mustang from her side holster and fired, striking Smith in the stomach. Smith shot back reflexively as he crumpled, the bullet tearing into Walsh’s heart.

Waiting outside, Pierce felt shock running over him.

“Kevin, what just happened?” Lara screamed frantically over the phone.

“I’m . . . I’m not sure. They were in the trailer together. There were shots.”

“You need to get out of there.”

“But the phone? They could trace it to us.”

“Damn, Kevin– just leave it.”

But Pierce had already hung up and was cautiously moving toward the hut. He walked to the window and, carefully looking in, saw two bodies motionless in adjoining pools of blood that were starting to run together. He pushed past the panic that was running over him and cautiously walked through the door and past the bodies. Kim Walsh’s eyes stared straight up at the ceiling. Eric Smith’s eyes were closed and his breathing was labored. As Pierce laid on the ground and reached under the desk for the phone, Smith opened his eyes and shakily aimed his gun at the investigator’s back.

Suddenly, a strange glow rose in the corner of the room. Pierce turned to look at it but froze when he saw Smith staring at him behind the gun.

Eric also moved his head to look at the light that had arisen right next to the grotesque, which quickly disappeared as though it were made of embers dispersed by a sudden breeze. He stared for a moment then made a deep groan.

“I, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to happen. I was so young,” he said as though speaking to the glow. He started crying and shaking as he slowly took the gun off Pierce and instead slowly brought it under his chin. He looked at the light for a long moment before pulling the trigger and making his handsome face erupt outward.

Startled into motion, Pierce quickly bent down and grabbed the phone. Standing, he stared again for a moment at the glowing form, seeming to see the image of a young girl starting to appear in the light. She looked at him intensely and said only two words. “Go. Now!”

He stumbled out the door and sprinted to the lumber pile, hurriedly donned his equipment, put the phones in a waterproof bag and waded into the surf. As Pierce started swimming away, rain began to pour, slowly at first before becoming a full torrent. When he was in up to his neck, he heard approaching sirens. He slipped under the water into safety and started swimming toward the lot where he left his car.

Epilogue – January 7, 2007

After the 8:30 a.m. mass at Santa Rosa de Lima Catholic Church on a crisp Sunday morning in January, Kevin and Lara Pierce walked to the parish graveyard. A simple granite slab in the well-manicured grass read: Fatima Guerrero 1949-67 Nuestra Angel Regresada. The two looked in silence at the grave for a moment then went to the parking lot then drove to the Royal Isabela for brunch.

They sat at a corner table in an elegant dining room that once had been a reception hall for weddings and quinces.

“A lot nicer being here now, with all that drama over. That may have been stupid, but it was the right thing to do. It brought some resolution here, even if anonymously,” Lara said. “The claims went away but, more importantly, glad they were able to go out and still find that poor girl’s remains out in the water. “

“I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“Following that thought . . .” she began, and paused, her dark brown eyes looking intently at her husband.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I’m late.”

“You’re late?”

“Yes.”

A switch came on. “Oh. Oh, wow.” A pause. “How late?”

“Very.”

“Should we check? I mean, I thought the doctors said after the injuries . . . ,” he said but she was already smiling.

In that moment, neither of the Pierces saw the glow that rested near them in the middle of the windowed sunshine on the carpet, nor did they notice when it faded after a while to become a part of the greater light.

END

<<<<>>>>

Karl Miller‘s fiction and poetry have appeared in various periodicals; his play, A Night in Ruins, was produced Off Off Broadway.  A Best of the Net nominee, Miller lives in Coral Springs, FL.

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