Of all the things I'd discovered over the years, the strangest was a glass eye. When the detector beeped and I plunged my scoop into the sand, I expected the usual spare change. Sure enough, I plucked out a quarter, but then, as the grit sifted through, a fat brown eyeball lingered in my sieve. Heavier than I would've imagined, it was actual glass, not epoxy or rubber or whatever a fake eye is made of these days. What amazed me most was how it had managed — after tumbling in the surf, for years possibly — to stay intact. As it sat in my palm, I poked at it a little, rolled it around with my finger, checking for cracks. Scrutinizing it. Once the sun caught the iris, I determined it Lord God flawless.
And then the questions formed. Who was the owner? How do you purchase a glass eye? Is there a glass eye store, or do you buy online? Do you keep spares in the medicine cabinet like extra bars of soap? And how do you lose one in the first place? Does a massive wave hit you broadside, causing the eye to shoot out at high velocity like a champagne cork? I pictured the eyeball's owner clambering from the rough surf as little boys sat in the sand building castles. They looked up to see a man's face punctured by a gaping hole so horrific that it immediately sent them running for their mommies.
It had been a decade since that discovery, and I'd yet to find anything weirder. I was familiar, of course, with the famous metal detecting stories. A box filled with 16th century coins in Massachusetts, a cache of silver in the Keys from a wrecked Spanish galleon. But for me, my finds were generally the same old thing: spare change, earrings or other jewelry, once a TAG Heuer — though, really, who wore a watch anymore?
I often pondered Blackbeard's buried treasure while scavenging Topsail Island, a narrow spit off North Carolina's mainland. Topsail (pronounced Top-sull, from when pirates ransacked the area and used the island as a hideout) wasn't as well-known as Kitty Hawk or Cape Hatteras. And that was fine by me. Tourists kept things busy in summer, but only a handful of us locals remained year-round. I'd lived in my one-bedroom bungalow for over two decades, doing my own hiding out, avoiding the ambush, as it were, of modern-day pirates. Except my pursuers didn't have eye-patches or swords. Instead, they wore custom suits, slick shirts, and gold chains. A car heist had gone seven different shades of wrong when I'd been young, stupid, and living in Jersey. Even twenty-five years later, it wasn't too farfetched to believe a couple of dudes short on brains but long on memory might suddenly appear, wanting to puncture my skull with ice picks.
I didn't think about it every day, just found it wise to never fully forget. Like occasionally noticing an old scar on your arm from a schoolyard knife fight — a reminder of how fast things can change if you stop paying attention.
Which gets me to what happened last week. I'd been working flotsam near the dunes after the previous night's hurricane. A glancing blow really, downgraded to a weak Category 1 by the time it made landfall. Ample flooding temporarily closed the main road, the blacktop eaten away by surge. Minor house damage, shingles scattered like confetti, sea grass and skate sacs caught in pilings, on driveways, between deck railings and balconies. An inconvenience for most. An opportunity for me.
I'd set out at sunrise, the morning clear but windy. Sharp gusts repeatedly hiked my shirt up over my paunch, the skin taut as a pale water balloon. Usually I forgot I even had a gut, imagining myself as that bygone twentyish-something athlete instead of the fiftyish-something old man who'd consumed too many beers and fried shrimp platters.
I fought the wind and sparked a cigarette, which, admittedly, didn't help my cause, but hell, we've all got our demons. Currently, I was less worried about my health and more concerned about making rent. I ran the register at the EZ Mart, but in the slow months Mr. Parikh cut back my hours, so digging up loose change or the occasional trinket supplemented my off-season income. Whatever I found, I sold to my buddy Tommy, who ran a pawnshop on the mainland.
When the detector beeped, indicating precious metal, I dug only six inches before my scoop hit something large and solid. I ditched the sieve and used my hands, digging with gusto, only to retreat with a wince when my pinky got pierced. "Goddamnit," I yelped as blood trickled. It was barely a scratch, minor really, hopefully just from a crab claw or oyster shell fragment. Worst case: a rusty hook or nail. I hadn't had a tetanus shot in forty years. Hadn't seen a doctor in thirty, mainly because I couldn't chance filling out forms, all that info going into some internet database. Not if I wanted to avoid being tossed into the ocean, a manhole cover chained to my ankles — or whatever sick shit those Jersey bastards might devise if I popped back up on the grid.
I sucked at the cut and spat before continuing, brushing more gingerly. Then I discovered what had set the detector off: a ring, gold with a ginormous diamond, five smaller ones inlaid around it like a star. But I had one little problem. A monster fucking problem, if truth be told, that set my heart to rabbit-thumping. The ring was attached to a finger. A whole hand, actually, each nail perfect and painted pink except the index, which was broken, jagged, and smeared with a dot of fresh blood. My blood.
I scanned my surroundings. Other than a scattering of sandpipers and gulls, the beach was abandoned. Waves churned, the sea angry and hungover. I swept a bit more. The hand was delicate, well cared for. I pictured an attractive woman, probably early forties. An odd thought, I admit, imagining a dead woman as good-looking, not to mention a rigid hand was my only barometer for gauging her level of hotness. I had an urge to dig her up and save her, perhaps administer mouth-to-mouth. But I quickly gathered my wits.
I removed more sand, carefully, so as not to injure her. Another weird impulse, yet I felt obliged to show some hint of respect. The hand connected to an arm, and beneath it, scrunched legs in white pants. I glanced around again. Tall dune grass — clustered on the sandy hills, swaying like wheat — shielded me from the road. Bits of sand whipped at my exposed ankles, stinging my skin. A tattered Tar Heels flag flew from an unoccupied oceanfront rental, snapping in the wind. The beach was desolate.
I wasn't sure if I should continue. I'd seen a few stiffs in my day, and I knew that a dead face might cause me to puke-up far quicker than a hand ever could. Or an arm. Or legs in white pants. Dry pants, by the way, which I found peculiar. If the ocean had spit her out during the storm, she would've been soaked. If intentionally buried, last night's downpour would've drenched her. But she was dry. Her disposal, then, had been recent. Very recent. Like only hours-ago-recent. I continued to scrape. An elbow. Lightweight blouse (silk maybe?). A shoulder, locks of hair (brunette, also dry). Throat stained purple with bruises like waxy splashes from a candle.
Beach still empty. Desperate for cigarette. Trawler on horizon, slowly chugging. Had to see that face now. Didn't want to, yet absolutely had to. Beyond her throat, sharp chin melted into painted lips, high cheekbones rouged. One visible earlobe with a diamond stud. Nostrils caked with sand. Eyes closed, thank God, powdered with faint blue shadow. Her temple, where it met the hairline was ... was punctured. A black stream, hard and crusty, slipped into her hair above the ear. Flesh puckered and shredded at wound. At entry point.
More than I needed to see.
I covered her face frantically, grabbing at sand, then backtracked: concealed the neck, shoulder, elbow, until I reached that original hand.
Ogled the ring. That fat diamond.
The ripped flag snapped. The trawler chugged. The sandpipers skipped, their tracks dissolving in wet sand like a beautiful mystery. Still no person in sight. I grasped the dead hand, pried and squeezed, tried to slip that ring over her swollen finger. Kept twisting and turning. Once off and safely in my pocket, I considered nicking those matching earrings. Instead, I bolted for home.
* * *
At the house, I stared at that ring for hours. Estimated its worth at twenty grand. Considered the woman, somebody's wife or mother. Intentionally buried before sunrise. Not an overboard passenger or drowner. Not an accident.
I couldn't help but think about Trisha, my ex of twenty-five years. We'd dated some in high school, broke up, graduated. With both of us suffocating in our one-traffic-light, one-pizza-place, one-employer (a slaughterhouse), no-grocery-but-four-bars hometown, we reconnected. Occasionally bumped into each other while out drinking, and before I knew it, we got married. There'd never been any real love between us but never any hate or bitterness either. We toughed it out for five years, realized marriage wasn't our thing, split with no hard feelings. Neither of us had any money, any possessions, so there was no messy this is yours, this is mine. I stayed in the apartment, she moved to Hawaii on a lark after saving for a ticket. Left with just one suitcase. I hadn't seen her since. Not in person anyway.
A few years ago, I'm watching Dog the Bounty Hunter, drinking some cold ones, when Trisha appears onscreen. I about pissed myself, got this weird tingly feeling in my brain like I'd snorted something wicked. She's on the porch of a run-down shack — chickens and garbage and debris strewn across the yard — shrieking at Dog and his posse. Going off, the way I'd seen her do back in the day, usually after a bartender denied her last call. This time she's going ape-shit because Dog had just tackled her boyfriend, then cuffed-and-stuffed him. That dude's in Dog's truck, all bloody above his eye, shirtless and wiry and tattooed, yelling, "Trisha! Baby, I love you. Trisha!" And Beth, Dog's wife, she's restraining Trisha as Trisha strangles the hell out of that porch railing, her neck tendons taut. "Let him go, you asshole," she screams. Of course that was bleeped-out, but I could read those lips, knew them as well as anybody.
Despite her anger, Trisha still looked pretty damned good. Tan, long blonde hair, thin frame in a white tank-top. She'd clearly had a boob job, and her complexion was a bit rough, splotchy like she'd spent some years snorting blow off the sinks of roadhouse bathrooms. But still, you could tell she'd been good-looking once, back before all the hard living drained the pretty out of her. It was strange, surreal I guess, seeing that woman who I'd once known. The two of us so innocent back then, unable to predict what kind of shit-storm Life planned to throw our way.
What had struck me most was how passionate she'd been as she fought off Dog's wife. Normal viewers might've pegged her as just another hysterical drunk or junkie, whacked out of her head. But I saw it differently. She obviously loved that dude, the agony on her face pure and real. At the episode's conclusion, a follow-up paragraph stated her boyfriend escaped two weeks later, only to be shot and killed by the cops. I raised my beer before the TV and said, "Good luck, girl." She'd been cool, maybe a little bat-shit but that didn't mean she didn't deserve happiness, same as the rest of us.
Which brought me back to my own problems: namely that dead woman on the beach and her wedding ring in my house. I'd stashed it in the cigar box with my other strange finds, glass eye included. So who killed her? Who was she? When I tried to envision that face I'd seen earlier, all I got was this funky, lava-lamp-type-shit swirling around, her features warpy and distorted. And then it all melded into this weird-ass version of Trisha — the young Trisha, not the older one I'd seen on Dog — except all her teeth were shattered, and the skin of her throat pulsed in a perfect rhythm as if she'd swallowed a beating heart.
On the late local news, a prominent contractor announced his wife was missing. I didn't know the prick personally, but I sure knew of him. Sheldon Blackwater, a developer of oceanfront properties and a big opponent of the Topsail Turtle Project, something I'd gotten involved with — completely by accident — years ago. I'd been combing the beach when I found a baby loggerhead, its flipper missing, struggling as merciless gulls attacked its bloody wound. I scooped up the little guy, took him to the island's turtle rescue facility and, man, I got hooked. Visited every day until he was released six months later. For some folks it's puppies or kittens, for me it was baby turtles.
Sheldon Blackwater had scratches on his face, claimed he and his wife had gotten thrashed in the storm. News footage showed his battered Hummer — hood dented, windshield busted — supposedly from a snapped telephone pole. Said he'd run for help and when he returned she was gone. I didn't buy it.
When a photo of his wife, Adrienne, appeared onscreen, I nearly gagged on a bite of Stouffer's lasagna. Because it was her, the dead woman. She lacked the sand and contorted limbs and the hole in the head, but it was her. I wanted to ruin that Sheldon bastard, but unfortunately I couldn't call the cops, anonymous or straight-up. Because I had a problem. Specifically, his dead wife's fingernail. Back in Jersey, my DNA and fingerprints were on file, though when the cops collected my blood sample, nobody'd even heard of DNA. They hadn't wanted me or my cousin Mickey anyway; we were small potatoes. They wanted my boss, the guy who ran the chop shop; the guy who paid cash for the hot cars we brought in. And they got him, thanks to me and Mickey pinning two murders on him.
The day after we'd framed the boss-man, the cops found Mickey face-down and naked — save for a pair of tube socks — in the South Branch of the Raritan. It didn't take an Einstein to figure out I was next in line for a swim, so I bolted. Now, because of Adrienne Blackwater's blood-stained finger, trouble was brewing for me once again.
* * *
I wasn't overly handy, but I had a basic toolbox, including a hacksaw and a three-pack of blades. I didn't think I'd need more than one, but hell, I'd never tried to saw through human bone before. I figured I'd just remove her pointer but then recalled how I'd pried that diamond off her ring finger. Might be better, then, to cut at the wrist, just take the whole damn hand, launch it into the ocean. I wasn't looking forward to the task, but she'd be discovered one way or another, and, realistically, all the scrubbing in the world wouldn't rid her of my DNA.
Most people knew me, local cops included, and wouldn't think twice if they saw me combing the beach after midnight; a metal detector doesn't care if it's dark. But a dude walking along with just a hacksaw? That might raise suspicion. So I stuffed it in a backpack and brought the detector along.
I planned to approach from the road, then use the public access boardwalk to shoot in a block shy of her body. But when I got to the steps and headed down the walkway, red and blue flashes spackled the sky. I'd made it halfway when a cop appeared. "You need to turn around, buddy," he said, his Maglite clicking on, blinding me.
"What the hell?" I said, shielding my eyes.
"That you, Frank?" he said.
"Yeah, it's me. Who's that?"
"Officer Reynolds. Sorry, but I can't let you down there."
"What's going on, Craig? And can you cut the damn high beams?" I knew Craig from the EZ Stop. Young kid. He'd come in and shoot the shit, drink free coffee during shifts. He was a good dude, far as cops go.
"I ain't allowed to say," he said, turning off his Maglite, but I sensed an eagerness to spill the beans.
"You busting up a kegger?"
"What's with all the lights then?"
"I can't really talk about it, Frank."
"Hell, who am I gonna tell?"
He glanced toward the beach as if expecting his superior. "You heard about that missing lady?" he whispered. "Sheldon Blackwater's wife?"
"Yeah, saw it on the tube."
"Pretty sure we found her. Dead. A guy's walking his dog earlier when Fido smells something, runs toward the dunes, starts digging. The guy just called, shitting peach pits."
That one jagged fingernail smeared with a pinch of my blood. No bigger than a chocolate chip or a tab of acid. That's all it would take to lock me up for life.
"Jesus," I said.
"I know, right? Goddamned exciting, huh?"
"Yeah, Craig. Pretty exciting." If my DNA matched up in the national database, which it inevitably would, the local cops wouldn't recognize my given name. But once they saw the accompanying mug shots from back in Jersey? Sure I was older, fatter, balder, but they'd figure it out.
* * *
On the morning news, Sheldon Blackwater sat in front of a bouquet of microphones. He wore a suit and tie, hair combed back, graying at the temples. The scratches weren't as noticeable now, makeup I figured. He was probably my age but could've passed for early forties, fit and broad shouldered. His eyes teared as he discussed how he'd lost his "true love." How he was offering a hundred grand for information leading to an arrest of "the monster." He was so good, so believable, even I almost bought his bullshit.