Pelicans. Seven or eight of them, in echelon. Their shadows skated along the sand, the docks and beached boats. Rising, falling. Ty watched them from the wheel of the boat. His father, standing in the stern, made his hand into a gun. He tracked them, one eye scrunched to aim.
“Pow!” he said.
“Don’t be an asshole.”
His father looked at him. He lifted his index finger to his lips and blew out the smoke.
Ty sniffed. “You know they’ve been turning up dead on the beaches. Hundreds of them. Broken wings, necks.”
His father tugged on the little white ponytail jutting from the back of his ball cap. It was his POW-MIA hat, the one he wore everywhere.
“Some kind of a pelican murderer?”
Ty shrugged. “It’s one theory.”
He opened up the big Yamaha outboard, cutting off the conversation. This would be the second job of the afternoon, and daylight was beginning to fade.
Bradley Creek. Ty pulled the throttle back, wake-less. The tide was going out. You could see oyster bars on the exposed mudflats. Big custom homes loomed from the oaks on either bank. They had swimming pools and carriage houses and boathouses and floating docks. They did not have visible addresses. Ty looked at the GPS. Further up.
He smelled something and turned around. His father was lounging in the stern. He was lighting a joint.
“Goddammit, Dad. I told you. Not on the job.”
His father made a face, rolled his eyes. Ty turned back to the wheel. He cocked his head so he could talk over his shoulder.
“I need you to be with it on this one. It’s a 34-foot Regulator, and I don’t like the sound of the guy.”
“What’s his name?”
Ty double-checked the paperwork.
His father took a big pull on the joint. “Drug-dealer,” he said.
His father shrugged. “Si,” he said. “But a drug-dealer, you’d think he could make his payments.”
“You’d think,” said Ty.
The creek narrowed, grew shallower. They rounded a bend. There it was. The stern read: CASHFLOW. A serious offshore boat, center-console, with a Carolina Blue hull and dual Yamaha V-8s. It had 16-foot telescoping outriggers and a five-rod launcher. It had radar. It was not the kind of boat you kept tied-up on a shallow-draft blackwater creek, unless you wanted to hide it.
The house was one of those Tuscan look-a-likes, huge, with a clay-colored tile roof and decorative vines climbing adobe walls. There were balconies, french doors, a cupola. Ty tried to see through the windows but couldn’t. They seemed tinted, black. Maybe it was the light.
“Dad, come take the wheel.”
He did. Ty dug into his go-bag, found his hot-wire kit. Then he threw the bumpers over the starboard side.
“Bring her up alongside. Gentle.”
His father snorted, the joint sideways from his mouth.
“I was doing this in the Mekong 20 years before you were born.”
He slid them neatly in, and Ty jumped into the bigger boat. He went right to the console ignition panel and got to work. Simple snatch-and-grab, he was shooting for 60 seconds.
His father whistled.
Ty looked up. “Shit.”
She was coming down the boardwalk from the house, a black-haired woman in a white swimsuit. All legs. Olive skin that glistened. She was carrying a bottle of something. Rum, vodka, tequila? Something clear in a clear bottle. And a tumbler.
“God Almighty,” said his father.
Ty got the panel off. He had to hurry. If she interceded, they might be forced to abandon the recovery. And he was not much in the habit of talking to women. Not since…well, he tried not to think about that. Some things were better kept down, hidden. They hurt too much.
He got his alligator clips connected. The dash-lights and radio came on. Wrong wire.
He could hear her bare feet slapping down the wooden slats. They stopped.
“You are stealing my husband’s boat?”
Ty looked up.
“No ma’am,” he said. “Seizing it. For the bank. Your husband, he’s delinquent on his payments.”
“My husband is dead.”
Ty stood up, removed his ball cap.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said.
She shrugged and poured a slug in her glass.
“It is nothing,” she said.
Ty frowned. “Nothing?”
“They called him El Monstruo. The Monster.”
Her eyes were huge and dark. She drank from her glass. It was tequila, neat. She didn’t blink.
“Maybe we should come back,” said Ty.
“No no,” she said. “Don’t do that. You are having trouble, yes? I will get you the keys.”
Ty looked back at the ignition panel, the nest of colored wires.
“It is no problem,” she told him.
“Okay,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”
She smiled at him. “I do not.” She turned and started up the dock, then stopped. She looked over her shoulder.
“No one is coming with me?”
Ty’s father jumped. “I will,” he said.
Ty gave him a look. “You’re staying with the boat.”
He made a face at Ty and sucked on his joint.
Ty stepped over the gunwale onto the dock. She started toward the house. He followed. He tried not to look at her, how bright her suit was against her skin. Her contours rippling, jiggling underneath the fabric. He looked at the trees, the pool, the house. Anything but her.
There were surveillance cameras mounted at each corner of the house. Their red lights were on. She opened the sliding glass door. It was dark-tinted, like the windows. He followed her through it.
A modern kitchen, high-end steel and granite.
“Excuse the mess,” she said.
There was no mess. A pack of Marlboros, Reds, on the kitchen counter. A celebrity tabloid. A steak knife. She opened a cabinet and got out a second glass. Put it next to hers.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked him.
“No ma’am, but thank you.”
She had already poured it. She held it out to him. It swirled in the glass. He looked away. That black hair. Those dark eyes. She looked too much like her. Taylor. His fiance. Dead. It had been 13 months now. She had stepped in front of a car on her way to work. Some said on purpose. He wouldn’t ever know, would he? He hadn’t been there. Hadn’t seen it.
“I’m sorry, really I can’t.”
She shrugged. Poured it into her own glass. Drank. Exhaled.
“Oh yes,” she said. “The keys.”
She began rummaging through the drawers.
“I know they are here, somewhere.”
Ty shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
She looked at him.
“It’s there.” She pointed to a nearby door.
Ty realized he had to go.
“Right,” he said. “Thank you.”
He went in, closed the door. Unzipped. He could hear her rummaging. He lifted the toilet seat and aimed for the side of the bowl.
“Oh no,” she said.
He looked at the door, eyes wide.
“I forgot,” she said. “The keys, they aren’t here.”
She was silent a moment.
“Oh?” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I forgot. They made him swallow them.”
“Before they killed him,” she said.
He flushed, zipped, opened the door.
She was pointing a gun at him.
“Shit,” he said.
She smiled. “Yes.”
“You can keep the boat.”
“I need you to take me with you.”
Ty swallowed. “Well, when you ask like that.”
“I am not asking.”
He looked at the pistol. It was a revolver. The hammer was back. She knew how to hold it.
“I reckon not,” he said.
“They are watching the front of the house.”
“My husband’s business associates.”
“Oh. Maybe we should call the police.”
She almost laughed. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I don’t exactly know what’s going on.”
“You don’t need to.” She jerked the gun. “Now let’s go.”
They walked outside. He went first. It was darker now. Dusk.
“You will be able to hot-wire the boat?”
“This way,” she said. She had them walk the far way around the pool. It was one of those funny-shaped ones, something akin to an hourglass. On the side was an elevated hot tub. Ty realized it wasn’t empty. There was something in there, submerged. A body. A man. Naked. Sitting. He was handcuffed to a patio chair. His face was white, peaceful. His black hair wavered gently.
“Son of a bitch,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “He was.”
The man’s lips was colorless in death. Pallid. His mouth was open.
“Why’d they kill him?”
“He had something that wasn’t his.”
“Did he give it back?”
“Let’s go,” she said.
His father held his joint out to one side.
“Father, Mrs. Solorzanos is coming with us.”
Ty stepped into the boat. The woman followed him. She kept the gun leveled at his back. Ty’s father squinted at her, the gun.
“Lady, you could of just asked.”
“In my life, things do not work so easily.”
He tossed the rest of his joint overboard.
“I reckon not,” he said.
Ty went straight to the ignition console.
“We need to get out of here before the tide gets too low,” he said.
“Where are the keys?” asked his father.
“Don’t ask,” said Ty.
He dug through the nest of wires. Found the one he was looking for. Switched up the alligator clips. The starters turned over. The motors fired up.
She made Ty’s father sit in the bow. He did as he was told, hands raised in surrender.
“You can put your hands down,” she told him.
“I wanted the full experience,” he said.
They pulled away from the dock, into the creek. The water bubbled and churned beneath the outboards. Ty was going slow, watching for shallow spots. The water was dark and calm. The first stars pricked the sky.
The woman came up close behind him. He could feel her. Smell her. Could feel it inside him, like he didn’t want to. It hurt.
“You know Masonboro Island?” she asked.
It was a small island to the south. Unpopulated. On weekends people anchored just offshore and partied on the beach.
“I know it,” he said.
“I need you to take me there.”
He laughed and looked at her. She wasn’t smiling.
Dark now. The moon was up. In the distance the white beach of Masonboro. The hull pounded through the heavier surf as they drew nearer. This island. The old haunt of pirates, confederates. Their dead glories lay wrecked and unseen in the surrounding waters, strange hulks in the ever-dark.
“Bring us into the beach,” she said.
He nodded. He nosed the big bow into the sand. His father let out the anchor. The dark water lapped against the hull, gently.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Ty’s father went first. He slipped off his flip-flops and eased himself over the side. He moved slowly, his arms quivering to lower himself, and Ty realized how old he’d gotten. There were still those stringy muscles in his arms, but his leathery skin was growing splotched, crinkled. The look of a man who had been at odds with the world for too long. Maybe he had.
The water was waist deep. The old man started wading ashore, his arms spread wide. Ty went next.
“Wait,” she said.
He was sitting on the gunwale, feet in the water. He looked at her.
“Thank you,” she said.
He shrugged. “If you say so.” He slid over the side. She followed him, belting her coat tighter against her thin frame. The water was chest-deep for her. She held the gun over the surface and struggled against the current. She was nearly ashore when they heard the booming of an engine, far-off but nearing. She glanced up at them. Her eyes were wide.
“Friends of yours?” asked Ty.
“No,” she said.
It was a cigarette boat, blood-red, raked low on the water. Mean. You could feel the engines in your chest. It slowed just off the beach, heaving on its own wake. There were three men in the cockpit, and something else.
“Run!” said his father. He felt a hand on his back. “Run!”
They ran up the beach, the three of them, and Ty heard the staccato burp of an automatic weapon. Tracers ripped across the darkness, into the dunes. Beside him she stumbled. He grabbed her arm and his father grabbed his, the night searing and whistling around them. They ran together up the first dune, they tumbled together down the far side. They lay heaving on their backs. Thunk-thunk-thunk, the rounds struck the sand behind them.
Ty’s father rolled up on one elbow.
“The hell’s going on, lady?”
She said nothing.
“Your husband’s business associates,” said Ty. “Is that them?”
She looked at him. Her eyes had become yet darker, no whites to them.
“Si,” she said.
She still had the pistol, clutched close to her chest. It seemed so small now, useless.
Ty looked up at the sky. An airliner, blinking silently among the stars.
“We can’t stay here,” he said. “They’ll be coming.”
He looked around. There was no cover, nothing manmade to hide them. Just dunes, sand, reed-grass. Then the ocean beach, the broken line of surf. The island was only a few hundred yards wide.
He felt something against his chest and looked down. The little snubnose pistol, resting on her open palms.
“Take it,” she said.
He looked at her face. It was so beautiful. He felt it in his throat. Her black-burning eyes, her ivory teeth, the dark pink of her lips. That black hair. Black, black, black – crashed all upon her shoulders like something uncaged.
“Take it,” she said again.
He did. He looked at it.
She put a hand on his shoulder.
“The sign for primitive camping,” she said. “Twenty paces to the east.”
He looked at her.
She was up before he could catch her, up and climbing the dune. He dropped the pistol, grabbed for her ankle. He missed. She paused at the top of the dune. The wind blew the hair back from her face like a crow’s wing. She looked back at them. Him. Her mouth straightened, a hint of something. She walked over the crest.
“No,” he said.
She was gone.
He started to climb after her but felt a hand on his ankle.
He looked down.
“Let her go,” said his father. “She ain’t our problem.”
Ty tried to pull his leg away. His father’s grip was firm, firmer than he’d have thought possible.
“Don’t,” he said. “It ain’t her. It ain’t Taylor.”
Ty felt something break open inside him. Panic. He had to see. Had to. It screamed in his veins. Like the night was an ocean and he was drowning in it. His father holding him down, under, his foot manacled to the bottom. He kicked and writhed. His arms made wings in the sand. He kicked his father in the face. Blood burst from his nose and Ty turned away, toward her. He scrambled all-fours up the slope and peered over the top, his head concealed by swatches of sand-grass.
She was on her knees, on the beach. Her head yanked back, blood on her face. A gun in her mouth. The three men were dressed in loose-fitting floral shirts and sharp-creased pants, wet to the knees. Two with ugly little machine pistols. The other, the leader, with a handgun. The one in her mouth. He was shouting, in Spanish. Ty could not understand the words but he could feel them. Mean, ugly words like some incanted curse.
The man pulled the pistol from her mouth and cocked his ear toward her.
“Dime!” he said. “Dime o mueres.”
“Tell him,” Ty whispered. “Goddammit tell him.”
He saw her mouth form a perfect, black O. The bottom of her tongue filled it, and she spat the word, defiant: “No.”
The man put his hands on his hips. Nodded. Then he jabbed the pistol at her. It popped. She fell backwards from her knees, her legs bent awkwardly underneath her. She writhed on the ground, she moaned. Dying. You could hear the blood in her throat. They watched her, the three of them. Turning their backs, lowering their weapons. No longer watching their sectors, like they should have been.
Ty was moving across the sand before he knew it, his shoes kicked off, his feet silent on the soft sand. He found the pistol in his hand, small as a pop-gun. Found his arm rising, leveling. Something terrible propelling him. Unstoppable.
They started to turn. He shot into them, shot into the big colorful hulks. Into their backs, their spines and shoulder-blades. They jumped and back-handed themselves as if stung. Then staggered, sank. He kept shooting, the red flames roaring from the end of his arm, as if from the very core of him.
He dropped the pistol, sank to his knees. His eyes were burning, he could not get enough air. He closed his eyes, opened them.
She was dead, her mouth open, her limbs splayed wildly underneath her. The pain frozen on her face. The others lay face-down, the sand darkening underneath them. One of them was moaning. He was digging inarticulately at the sand in front of his face, like he might bury himself. His legs were still.
“Oh Jesus,” said Ty. “Oh Jesus.”
He looked up at the sky, the stars scrawled raggedly across his vision. He screamed. Clutched his chest and screamed, and screamed. Through his teeth. He tore at his chest. Could feel it burning, bleeding. He wanted to rip it out of himself, his insides, this thing he’d done.
A shadow crossed him.
“Give me the pistol.”
He looked up. His father. There was blood in his beard, but his eyes were hard, clear.
“Give it to me.”
Ty looked down at the pistol, half-buried in the sand. He handed it up. His father swung the cylinder free and ejected the spent casings into his hand. He put them into his pocket. He pressed the cylinder back into place and turned the gun around in his hand, butt-first. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed. Then he raised the pistol overhead, the grip curled like a shepherd’s crook.
“What-?” said Ty.
A crack at the base of his skull, and he was gone, out.
Pelicans, dead. Hundreds of them. Thousands. They littered the beach. Their bodies crumpled, broken, like sacks of jumbled bone. So many of them. An army. Slack-necked, broke-winged. Bellies white-turned to the moon. Their feet splayed, their feathers loose in the wind. A few prostrate, neck and beak flattened to the beach as if by cartoon steamroller.
Movement. He looked. It was standing there, looking at him. A survivor. One wing held awkwardly from its body, broken. One foot raised, mangled. Its black marble of an eye, wet. Watching him. Afraid.
“Hey buddy,” he said. “Let me help you.”
He started toward the bird. He wanted to hold it. Just to hold it. It freaked. Clacking, flapping. Fleeing on the one good leg. It tripped over a comrade. Ty reached down. The long beak jabbed him. He clutched his hand and screamed. Blood sprang from his palm. He stumbled backwards. He felt a sick crunch underfoot. He tried to step free but stepped on another carcass, another, the bones of the fallen crackling underneath his heels like the work of some terrible giant. And that’s when he saw it. These birds, they lay spread-winged before him like victims of a blast, and he was center of it all. The dread thing. The monster.
He woke. He was in a white tub of fiberglass. A boat.
His father stood above him. Ty tried to lift his head. A bolt of pain shot through his skull.
“Don’t,” said his father.
His father placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Nothing,” he said. “A bad dream.”
His father squeezed his shoulder, hard.
“A bad dream.”
He turned back to the wheel. He was shirtless, wearing his ball cap backwards, and the white hair at the base of his neck was dark-rooted with sweat. His whole body glistened. His shirt lay piled at his feet, right next to a sand-caked cooler Ty had never seen. The old man edged the throttles forward, and the big boat came up on plane.
Despite his head, Ty propped himself on one elbow and looked out over the stern. The boat cut a white vee behind them. Beyond that the beach. No bodies, no boats. Just the white spit of sand, naked as a blade in all that darkness.
Taylor Brown’s short fiction has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including New Guard, CutBank, storySouth, The Coachella Review, Thuglit, Plots with Guns, CrimeSpree, Crime Factory, The Bacon Review, Pindeldyboz, The Dead Mule, The Liars’ League, and The Press 53 Open Awards and Press 53 Spotlight anthologies. His story “Rider” received the 2009 Montana Prize in Fiction, and his story “Cajun Reeboks” (Thuglit) was recognized (not published) in Best American Mystery Stories 2010. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and his website is www.taylorbrownfiction.com.