John Keyse-Walker Excerpt: Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed

Beach, Breeze, Bloodshed by John Keyse-Walker is the second book in the Teddy Creque Mysteries series (available September 12, 2017).

After barely surviving the first criminal investigation in living memory on the sun-drenched British Virgin island of Anegada, Constable Teddy Creque has spent the past six months trying to weather the aftermath, and move on with his life. Now, with a promotion and a medal of honor, he’s newly committed to the job. So when a young woman dies in a shark attack off the coast of a neighboring island, Virgin Gorda, Teddy is happy to help when Deputy Commissioner Howard Lane orders him to capture the man-eater. But when Teddy arrives on Virgin Gorda, he begins to suspect there was human foul play involved, too.

After all, the sharks around the idyllic island aren’t known for attacking humans, and there are some oddities at the scene. Unfortunately, while Teddy is convinced that the woman’s death wasn’t accidental, not everyone on the island takes kindly to his meddling, and he’s forced to be creative in his pursuit of justice. In unfamiliar territory, and with his sole witness a silent child who communicates in unorthodox ways, Teddy must earn the trust of the reserved residents of the touristy island, tangle with a loquacious parrot, and follow the clues which might lead him directly into the path of a killer.

Chapter One

Violent death is part of a policeman’s job—witnessing it, dealing with its aftermath, informing the next of kin, capturing the perpetrators, and sometimes even avoiding having it visited upon oneself. I know because I have done all those things. Only once, it’s true, but once was enough, and more than enough, I thought after I had been through it. So I quit, left it behind, thought I had cleansed my life of it the way a Santerismo madrina cleanses a home of evil spirits. But then I came back.

I came back after six months away: six months of saying no to the job; six months of my torn flesh healing to become a keloid scar on my chest where the bullet that had awakened me from and almost ended my peaceful, easy, complacent life was removed; six months, less a few weeks, after I stood, a man broken, before the House of Assembly of the Virgin Islands and received the Queen’s Police Medal for my distinguished service to home and country.

Now here I was, standing in the bow of my skiff, the Lily B, doing what I do best of all the things I do in life, looking through the surface of the water, that impenetrable boundary to the untrained eye, to see the life below. It is a skill I mastered only after years of training, long days of poling and scanning the water ahead, picking through the bouncing rays of sun that veil the surface to spot a shadow, a fin, a flash of movement, beneath the mirrored skin of the sea. It is akin to peering through the daylight sky to discern the stars beyond. It is a skill I learned as a fisherman. I was applying it now as a policeman.

Fishing skill is not a usual requirement in a policeman’s job description. It is not a normal requirement even here in the Virgin Islands, where so much of life revolves around the sea. In fact, most Royal Virgin Islands Police Force officers are not anglers, in the professional sense, like me. I daresay most have wet a line on a Sunday afternoon for the purpose of catching a mess of yellowtail snapper for dinner, but I am a fishing guide as well as a police officer, so it was natural and appropriate that my boss, RVIPF deputy commissioner Howard Lane, had assigned the task I was attempting to perform to me.

That task was to catch a perpetrator of violent death at sea off the southwest coast of the island of Virgin Gorda. Deputy Commissioner Lane had made my instructions clear: apprehend and kill, no arrest, indictment, or trial. I was to be judge, jury, and executioner, no niceties of civilization, as it is so often on the brutal sea. Because, you see, the perpetrator I sought was not human. The perpetrator was a shark.

The call had come from headquarters in Road Town about ten in the morning. The mutilated torso of the victim had first been seen at dawn by an early-morning jogger on the beach at The Baths. A jumble of massive volcanic boulders interspersed with powdery white sand, The Baths are dramatic and inviting at the same time. The warm aquamarine waters between the boulders are popular for snorkeling and swimming. Except that no one would venture into them today. The headless, armless trunk of the young woman pulled from the gentle surf had a considerable deterrent effect on swimmers and snorkelers. Great chunks of the torso’s thighs had been torn away. Entrails drifted dreamily in the waves. The head, an entire arm and most of the second, and the left half of the chest and ribs had been severed from the body.

The jogger who found the remains had told the constable from the Virgin Gorda police station who first arrived on scene that he had seen a large brown shark circling and returning to rip away flesh again and again as the body floated in on the incoming tide. Neither the jogger, nor the constable, nor anyone else in the to-be-counted-upon knot of the curious who had gathered on the shore had ventured to retrieve the pitiful lump of meat and bones until it had washed in almost onto dry sand. The shark had eaten and eaten and probably would have finished the entire meal had not the tide cleared the table.

The onlookers remained on the sand among the scattered boulders when Anthony Wedderburn and I arrived from Anegada three hours later. They stared seaward toward us as we anchored. Within earshot of shore, we heard no sound from them except for the vendors who circulated among them hawking guava juice and green coconut water. I guess we were the second act of the morning’s entertainment and they were waiting for the curtain to go up.

“Let’s anchor here, Anthony,” I said as the current carried us over a hole, its depth showing as a purple-black color, two cable lengths from land. The anchor caught in the marly bottom, spinning the boat to face the southwest current.

Anthony went to the cooler beneath the stern seat of the Lily B and pulled out a thirty-pound block of chum, frozen in a mesh potato bag. The hot sun triggered the almost immediate release of an odor that was a mix of dead fish, sweaty feet, and slaughterhouse.

“Where did you get this … awful offal?” Anthony winced, holding the bag at arm’s length and turning his head aside, as if that could shield him from the smell now enveloping the Lily B and the nearest twenty yards of atmosphere surrounding her.

“I made it myself,” I said. “One-third mullet for oiliness, one-third leftover lobster trap bait, and one-third roadkill—a cow hit just outside The Settlement last fall. Whenever I get a client who just wants to catch a big fish and doesn’t care about species, I take a bag out of the freezer and chum up a shark. It works like a charm.”

“Remind me to never accept a dinner invitation from you, old man. Not if it comes out of the same freezer you keep this in.” Anthony grinned, always cheerful at any task. He tied the chum bag to a short length of line, dropped it in the water, and knotted the line to the stern cleat.

Before long, an oily slick, augmented with bits of rotting fish and rancid beef, was being carried in the current on a line parallel to the beach.

While Anthony was setting the chum bag, I prepared the big Penn International reel and rod, attaching fifteen feet of stainless steel cable leader to a ball-bearing swivel, attaching that to the 130-pound-test monofilament line from the reel, and crimping on a 12/0 circle hook. When it was all ready, I pushed the hook through the back of the bait—a whole five-pound bar jack. The bait was then dropped into the water beside the chum bag and the line slowly stripped from the reel as the current took the bait back into the chum slick.

“It shouldn’t be long now, Anthony,” I said. “Give the bag a couple of shakes to keep the chum flowing, will you?”

Catching sharks is never difficult in the BVI. The hoteliers and resort owners are reluctant to speak of it but the sea here is home to plenty of sharks, large and small. Our waters are abundantly filled with reef fish and other marine life, particularly around Anegada and Virgin Gorda due to the close proximity of the Horseshoe Reef and the Anegada Trench. With many fish come many sharks, the cleaners of the sea, feeding on the old, the injured, and whatever is the piscine equivalent of the halt and the lame, dispatching them with surgical precision. Wade a bonefish flat and you are accompanied by sharks. Snorkel or scuba dive and you will see the gray shapes cutting in and out of the periphery of your vision. Amble a few steps from your resort’s beach cabana, with its plush towels and attentive waiters, for a cooling dip in the clear waters, and they will be there, keeping their distance, curious and yet wary, as you splash and play.

While their appearance may be sinister, my experience has been that their intentions are not. I have never known a shark to attack a human being in the BVI. There is just too much easy food, in the form of live and dead fish, rays, turtles, and lobsters, for them to bother tackling something as large and troublesome as a man. And a mistaken attack, the kind that occurs in murkier waters the world over, is not possible here with water visibility usually in excess of one hundred feet.

“I see two in the chum line,” Anthony said, a hand shading his eyes against the morning glare. Sure enough, two high fins carved the surface a quarter mile in our wake. Soon more dorsals joined the first two, working forward in the current toward the source of the chum, picking up chunks of fish and cow flesh. At a hundred yards off the Lily B’s transom, the bodies of the sharks came into view, orbiting the dead jack that was my bait. I could see that they were all small, their length less than a woman’s height, and also that they appeared gray or blue in color. This meant that they were reef sharks or blacktips, species not the object of our hunt. The constable and the other witnesses who had seen the shark eating the torso had described a large brown shark, and that could mean only one species in these waters—a bull shark. While its colors vary widely in the bull shark’s round-the-world equatorial habitat, in the Virgin Islands they are known as the Man in the Brown Suit.

What I saw circling the bait drifting in the top of the water column was not the quarry Anthony and I hunted but there was nothing to be done. Soon the blue and gray ghosts moved to the attack, a half dozen small sharks taking turns, charging in, slashing a piece from the bait, until the surface of the water frothed and churned. Ashore the crowd of onlookers had grown as the morning moved toward noon, and the attack on the bait drew first a murmur from them, and then a horrified exclamation, which made its way across the water to De Rasta and me.

The clicker on the reel engaged, a signal that the hook had found one of the sharks, and the battle was on. It was not much of a battle. Given the circumstances, today’s fishing was not about giving the shark a sporting chance, and I had used my heaviest gear. The hooked five-foot lemon shark was no match for 130-pound-test line and a rod as thick as a manchineel sapling. The fish found itself at boat-side after five minutes of thrashing.

De White Rasta, no fisherman, exulted in the catch. “We have him already! I’ll gaff him!”

“No gaff, Anthony,” I said. “That’s not our shark, any more than the dozen still out there are. Just put on one of those leather gloves and grab the leader wire when I get it close.”

Anthony did as instructed and the lemon shark was soon slamming its tail against the gunwale of the Lily B. I reached down with a cable cutter and parted the leader just above the hook. The hook itself would rust out of the shark’s mouth in a matter of days.

All this unfortunately took place on the port side of the boat, in full view of the throng on shore. An outraged “ahhhhh” could be heard from the beach when the assembled realized the shark had been released.

It was then that I saw the RVIPF’s only police boat, the fifty-five-foot St. Ursula, approaching at flank speed from the direction of Tortola. In the bow, field glasses trained directly on the Lily B, was Deputy Commissioner Lane, his six-foot-six-inch frame seemingly at attention, as always, the binoculars unwavering despite the gentle roll of the sea. Two minutes later, the St. Ursula had closed the gap with the Lily B and cut her engines.

The DC cupped his hands to his face and called, “Constable Creque, I assume you have a good reason for releasing that shark and you are prepared to explain it to me in detail.” The St. Ursula’s momentum had carried her close enough that I could see his face, wearing the same exasperated expression it seemed to wear so often around me.

DC Lane had tried to keep his stentorian voice at a level that would not be heard by the spectators on the beach. A grumble of agreement with his statement welled up from the crowd, telling me he had failed.

“That was not the shark involved in the attack,” I said. I thought I had spoken in a conversational tone, enough to discreetly communicate across the thirty feet now separating the two vessels. A further rumbling from the beach told me my words had still carried ashore.

“And you know that, Constable, because…?” The DC held nothing back this time, either realizing the water inevitably carried our voices better than the engineered acoustics of the best symphony hall, or not caring.

Providing an explanation to the DC, even if one is confident it is reasonable and correct, is not the most comfortable exercise for a subordinate. As I had in the past been in the position of providing explanations to the DC that were neither reasonable nor correct, I found myself doubly uncomfortable and cast an almost involuntary look around for help. My eyes fell on a large brown shape astern of the Lily B by almost the length of a cricket pitch. I pointed.

“Because the shark that made the attack is over there.”


Copyright © 2017 John Keyse-Walker.

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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. His first novel, Sun, Sand, Murder, was the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

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