Moni paced past the crime lab a few times until the professor had left, leaving young Aaron without his chaperon. The student studied the photos of the beheaded body and the floating lumps of guts and bones that had once been fish. When she slipped behind him and tapped him on the shoulder, Aaron nearly jumped out of his skin. “Whoa!”
Then he turned around and must have realized that those gruesome scenes were only photos. When Aaron blushed, Moni knew how much he cared about impressing her. “Hi Moni. This stuff is pretty intense. I’ve sliced open animals before…” She gave him a mocking glare of disgust. “You know, like for dissection in class. I don’t enjoy it or anything. But this guy, he’s straight up psycho.”
She couldn’t take her eyes off his mouth as he spoke. He had this adorable smile like a little spider monkey. His body was sculpted with lean muscle, no doubt from all the outdoor adventures that gave him that golden tan.
The only outdoor adventures her ex Darren had were shooting craps and tagging buildings with spray paint.
“You look like you could use a break,” she said. “Come on in my office for a few.” Aaron scanned the lab for his professor. “Don’t worry. Just tell him I needed your advice on a little something.”
Aaron probably thought of that story as an excuse to go one-on-one with her, but it actually mirrored Moni’s intentions pretty closely. In case he caught on to her ruse, Moni strutted ahead of him on the way to her office so he could enjoy a little wiggle. Once inside, Aaron immediately noticed the photo on the bookcase of Moni wearing the graduation cap and police uniform with her arm around her beaming mother. Everyone who saw that always remarked how much darker her mother looks, making it a dead giveaway that her father is a white man.
The young man smiled with those handsome lips of his. “I can see where you got your rocking looks from,” Aaron said. “Is she a crime fighter too?”
His compliment sprouted a grin across her face that covered up the bitter irony in his comment. Her mother had been a victim of criminal battery at the hands of her father.
“My mother was a nurse, God rest her soul,” Moni said.
“Oh…I’m sorry.” His smile gone, Aaron studied the picture once more. Somehow, photos look different when it’s known that a person in them is a ghost.
“It’s all right. She had a weak heart, but she’s in a better place now.” That place being away from her father. The stress of their abusive marriage drove her blood pressure up and killed her. Even from behind bars, the nasty letters her father mailed home beat the woman down more than his fists ever could.
Moni should have stepped up and saved her mother. She had seen the bruises on her face and arms so many times, but she didn’t say anything. Neither of them had called the police. Neither of them had fought him off, much less lifted a hand against him.
She wouldn’t let it happen again. Moni promised Mariella she’d protect her against that monster conducting a massacre along the lagoon. She couldn’t help the girl until she knew whether she had been infected or not, but Moni couldn’t trust anyone working for Sneed with the tests. He wanted the girl more than the lagoon killer did.
After some conversational foreplay about Aaron’s studies in the graduate program and how he lives in a beachside apartment with friends – not his mom and dad – Moni cut straight to it.
“How about you drop by my place this afternoon?” she asked. Aaron’s eyebrows shot up. “I’ll pick Mariella up and be in by three-thirty.” His enthusiasm mellowed, but not by much. Most guys would have ducked out right there. In her senior year of high school, Moni and her friends joked that having a kid was as good as man repellant.
“That’s cool. I never had a little sister so I hope I’m not a bad role model. I could teach her to surf.”
Mariella probably would have loved that if her ordeal hadn’t made her terrified of the water. She kept a wary eye on the canal behind Moni’s house all day, but she never went near it.
“We’ll save that for another day. She takes a while to adjust to new people,” Moni said. “But I hope you bring your exam kit. After her parents were murdered she spent the whole night near the lagoon. I just want to make sure she’s, you know, healthy.”
“And you don’t want Sneed knowing. I don’t blame you. He’s a damn good cop, but I get the feeling he’s more about bagging them and tagging them than protecting kids.”
“You catch on fast,” Moni said with a giggle. She ran her hand down his arm and gave those rock-hard shoulders a fleeting caress. She wished she knew a good babysitter that could buy her a couple hours with him.
“I wouldn’t worry about it though,” he said. “If she had the thiobacillus infection, it would be obvious. That thing is so brutal you’d see her sick for sure. And it might make people all aggressive like those animals were. We both know that’s so not a problem with her.”
Reminding herself that Mariella only hurt the Buckley boy after he had provoked her, Moni nodded. Still, she couldn’t help feeling a sour pit in her stomach. If the girl didn’t have anything wrong with her, then why did someone leave the raven and why did the stalker shadow Mariella at school?
“She’s okay. It’s just a precaution.” Moni realized her attempt at an assuring grin fell flat.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll check her out tonight as long as she’s ready.” He placed his hand on her shoulder for a second before awkwardly withdrawing it like he thought he had moved a little too fast. And Moni had thought beachside guys were all about hooking up, surfing and smoking weed. At least he looked like the exception on one of those counts.
“Thanks so much.” This time, Moni hooked her digits around his shoulder and dragged him in for a kiss on the cheek. He didn’t try turning it into a lip lock – well behaved boy. She hadn’t dated one of those since…ever. But acting all sweet wouldn’t help her if things got rough, and between the men she couldn’t shake from her life and Mariella’s problems, she knew they would soon enough. “Just keep one thing in mind. This isn’t a school project. It’s the difference between people dying and escaping with their lives. One witness is already dead. So if you want to get with this for real…” Pausing, she noticed how he widened his eyes as if she were talking about getting with her in a relationship. “Get with this murder investigation, I mean…I just want you to understand because I don’t want to take advantage of your, you know, your…”
Ringing from Moni’s phone interrupted her. Figuring Mariella’s teacher had another round of bad news, she answered immediately.
“Hey, kiddo. You gotta explain to me what’s going on down here. Those assholes won’t let me fish!”
The sound of her father’s voice hit Moni like paralyzing spider venom. Her hand trembled. She could barely hold the phone. Not now. She couldn’t let Aaron see her like this. At least one person in her life shouldn’t know. Having caught onto her reaction, Aaron had already scooted across the room.
“Can you please call me back later? I’m on a case. It’s important that I…”
“I know what case you’re on and your case fucked up my day. I was fix’n to fish under the causeway, but when I got here it smelled awful – like rotten eggs. There were these signs warning me not to fish. I marched right by them, but your damn pig brothers spotted me and kicked me out. Are you gonna let that happen to me?”
She wished she had known. She would have told the officers to book his ass. Or she should have. Moni knew deep down she would have caved in and let her father have his way. His fists couldn’t travel through the phone, but she still flinched at his every word.
“You got an answer for me?”
“Just listen to the signs.” She raked her jittery hand across her forehead. “There is something wrong with the lagoon, but it’s not my fault, okay? I’m working on fixing it.”
Averting his eyes as if a naked sumo wrestler were standing before him, Aaron bolted for the exit. “You’re busy. Hey, it’s cool. I’ll see you tonight.”
Hoping her father didn’t hear that, she covered the phone as she called for Aaron. He vanished before he heard her. He didn’t want any part of this.
Moni reared her arm back to chuck the phone against the wall. She wound her arm through the throwing motion and returned it to her ear. Ending a phone conversation early with her father meant setting up a physical meeting. She didn’t need that, especially with Mariella in her house.
“You got a hearing problem, girl?”
“Sorry. I’m just…”
“You’re just stupid. What are you doing with a child?”
He knew. Moni doubled over and gasped for air. She clamped her teeth and shook her head. His fists came down so hard. His teeth sank deep into her wrists until they bled. She smelled the leather on the soles of his boot as it squashed her head against the wall. Now Moni left her body and watched him inflict the abuse on someone else – Mariella cowering in her closet and not even capable of screaming.
Then he yelled at her: “You been fucking up my whole life, you little whore! All you do is screw up!”
Moni cupped the phone against her mouth with both of her hands because one alone couldn’t hold it steady. Her wobbly legs dumped her body onto the chair.
“There is no child,” she said weakly.
“Bullshit. I know a lot more than you think.”
“Have you been watching me?” A chill passed through her body. Her father didn’t own a blue pickup truck like the one outside Mariella’s school, but he could steal anything on wheels.
“You know I’d never violate my restraining order against children,” he said, referring to the child abuser boundary laws. “But I got a pal who keeps tabs on you. If you won’t show me some respect and keep me dialed in on your life, I have other ways, believe me.”
“Another way named Darren, huh? I got his message. So I guess he’s casing me out.” After seeing the note her ex had left outside her house, she had figured as much.
“He told me you brought home this little Mexican girl the other week. I put two and two together and figured that’s the girl the TV showed you carrying from the murder scene. Jesus Moni, she’s not a puppy. What are you doing?”
Moni never asked for a dog because she knew how her father would treat it every time it so much as sniffed his prized football game day recliner. He didn’t trust her with an animal, just like he didn’t trust her with a child.
“This girl is scared and vulnerable,” Moni said. “She doesn’t have another person on earth who’ll care for her. She needs me.”
“A single-parent household is no place for a child like that.”
That’s funny because Moni had wished so many times that her father would leave so her mother could raise her alone.
“I’m 32, dad. I’m ready for this. Mom was a lot younger when she had me.”
“Yeah she was. I knocked her up in her dorm room,” he said with a bullfrog chuckle. She winced at the thought of her parents doing the nasty. She imagined that her dad didn’t even take off his football helmet or shoulder pads. “Your mother could separate her work from her home life. You can’t. If you’re gonna stop the asshole who ruined my lagoon, you can’t be raising a child.”
“I told you! I can handle…”
“And from what I understand, this girl’s got problems. Everybody knows she’s the survivor. It’s all over the damn TV. So what you got is a crazy killer who knows this girl’s seen his face.”
“Thanks for reminding me. That’s why she needs special protection. I’ve got…”
“What’ve you got? A gun and no guts to use it? Shit, Moni. You’ve been on the force more than ten years. How many suckers have you shot?”
She didn’t reply. They both knew the answer. It didn’t bother Moni because it showed she used discretion – a word her father wouldn’t recognize.
“There’s a target on that child’s back and, as long as you got her, the target’s on you too. The lagoon man has a hunger and I smelled it out there today. That girl belongs to his lagoon and he’s coming to take her back. You can’t stop it, so you best get outta the way.”
Moni could hardly breathe. The only matters she trusted her father’s judgment in were ones like these – understanding the deranged. The killer inadvertently let Mariella get away once. He’d come again, but this time, his corruption of the lagoon and its creatures had grown stronger. If two brothers trained and equipped for hunting couldn’t stop it, what chance did Moni have?
But she had made a promise. If she couldn’t protect Mariella, no one would.
“I’m not afraid of it,” she said in a somber tone.
Moni shook her fist. “I said I’m not afraid of that motherfucker! Let him come. Let any gator or bird or whatever the hell he’s got come. I’m ready for it.”
She wished she could see his face during his brief pause. Moni hoped he looked shell-shocked. More than likely, he was displaying that yellow-toothed condescending smile.
“You keep telling yourself that, kid. Keep telling yourself. But don’t forget what I said. He ain’t gonna stop.”
He hung up. Moni already wished she could forget.