Murder Comes to Martin County – First Pages
Wednesday, July 12 – 10:45 AM
The air was gone.
The diver was 190 feet down and had less than two minutes to figure it out. His tanks should’ve had enough air to last him ten more minutes at the sunken wreck site, plus enough to decompress and surface with air to spare. But he was hard sucking and only a pint or two away from dead empty.
The man’s eyes darted in all directions searching for his dive buddies, but they were nowhere in sight. He looked up. There were tanks he could use stationed on the anchor line running to the dive boat above, but they hung ninety feet up the line. He’d never be able to swim up and tap into one before he passed out or, worse, be forced by his brain to involuntarily inhale seawater. Every movement was costing him precious oxygen and his life clock was ticking off its last seconds.
The diver had to do the unthinkable. Inflate his rapid-deployment lift bag and shoot upward to the tanks. If he missed the tanks and popped to the surface, the bends would likely kill him, but he might at least die with his lungs full of air. He yanked the release on the bright orange inflatable, which burst to full size and jerked him toward the surface like a dangling marionette. His lungs began to burn and he strained to draw the last cubic centimeters of air from his exhausted tanks. At 110 feet he stopping sucking on his collapsed mouthpiece and held his breath. He tightened his lips to resist inhaling. His chest ached and he knew in seconds he’d reach the inevitable point where he’d have to breathe. The fresh tanks were directly above him and approaching fast. He grabbed at the anchor line and pulled one of the reserve tanks to his chest. He tried to turn his fear into a determined anger and fought to hold on to get the fresh mouthpiece to his lips took and drew in hard. But no air came in.
The tank can’t be empty, his mind screamed.
The man shook the tank and sucked again on the mouthpiece. His grip on the anchor line weakened and he floated upward on the lift bag. He lost the standoff with his brain and drew in water, choking and flailing. His blinking eyes caught flashes of the sunlight as he drifted upward on the lift bag.
The day shone dazzling bright as he breached the surface, then faded into darkness, silence … nothingness.
* * *
Wednesday, July 12 – 3:45 PM
Detective Frank Dugan waited on the dock as the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat arrived and tied up. A young lieutenant stepped onto the weathered planks of the low pier and approached.
“We were on our regular shark-spotting run and saw the orange lift bag floating more than ten miles out off Jensen Beach,” the lieutenant said. “Closer look and we saw the diver. Can’t be more than thirty.”
“Best COD guess?”
“Coroner’ll be here shortly,” Frank said. “Is the body where he can examine it?”
“On the stern deck. We tried to resuscitate him, but …”
Henry O’Dell, a man who could double for a beardless Abraham Lincoln, marched up the pier toward the boat, his kit bag clutched in a latex-gloved hand.
Frank pointed to the boat’s aft section and followed the coroner onboard. Henry stared at the young body lying on the deck for several seconds.
“Prime of life,” Henry said and knelt next to the lifeless body. “Always a shame.”
While Frank was certain the diver was dead, he watched as Henry checked the body for any sign of life, a perfunctory procedure the law required him to perform. He examined the young man’s eyes and looked into his mouth.
“The Coast Guard tried CPR,” Frank said. “Nothing.”
“Let’s get him to the morgue,” Henry said. “We’ll know more there.”
The radio on the patrol boat control center squawked to life. The lieutenant grabbed the radio mike and said, “Go ahead base.”
“We just found a line tethered to a dive buoy,” a man’s voice on the radio said. “We pulled up two empty scuba tanks and a boat anchor on maybe sixty yards of line.”
“Bring it all to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office on Monterey,” the lieutenant said.
“Roger that,” the radio voice said and clicked off.
“Did you get that?” the lieutenant asked Frank, standing within earshot.
Frank nodded and stared hard at Henry O’Dell.
* * *
The autopsy at the morgue that night confirmed the diver had died from drowning, but the nitrogen level in his blood was so high that he likely would have died from that, even if he’d made it to the surface alive. It appeared so simple; cut and dried. But Frank Dugan had an instinct for anything out of place, like a well-equipped diver who drowns on a perfect weather day, attached to a substantial floatation device, with no dive boat, no other divers, and empty scuba tanks. Even if he’d over-stayed his time deep below, his fellow divers would’ve been the ones to either help him or, at minimum, find him and get him medical assistance. To abandon him bobbing on the Atlantic’s summer currents was unimaginable. Frank’s thoughts moved from outrageous negligence to something much more purposeful, something planned. Something like murder.
Frank stepped into the Medical Examiner’s office where Henry O’Dell shuffled through papers on his cluttered desk. Henry was a 65-year-old country doctor who turned to the forensic science of the dead after tiring of years trying to fix the living. He drawled like the rural North Carolinian he was and, ever since he’d arrived in Stuart to take over the duties of the county coroner, he picked up the nickname “Digger O’Dell.” Frank later discovered “Digger” was a character who portrayed an undertaker in popular radio shows back in the ’40s. Henry took the good-natured ribbing in stride, but regardless of the demeaning moniker, the simple fact remained that Henry Bedford O’Dell was the finest man behind a scalpel and rotary saw Frank had ever seen. Even the hard core kidders had to throw in on that score.
“Henry, I have a friend who’s a certified diver that I want to take a look at this man before we go much further than IDing him and finding next of kin.”
“He can stay where he is for now,” Henry said.
Frank got on his cell phone and called his sheriff, Roland Brand.
“Chief, I’m over at Henry’s. I want every dive shop canvassed for any recently rented deep dive equipment, and I want all charter boats checked for any contact with a dive boat seen today in waters off Martin and St. Lucie Counties. If anything positive turns up, I’ll provide the serial numbers I took from the dive gear. Get Rumbaugh to start on that right away. I’m going to see the Coast Guard to get statements and have the guy’s dive equipment brought to the station. Then I’ll be in.”
Frank ended his call and turned to Henry.
“What’s your take?” Frank asked.
“Not sure,” Henry said and tilted back in his desk chair. “Could go either way. People do make mistakes, even smart people. And making them in deep water is never going to turn out good. Coast Guard thinks he just had air in his tanks. Might’ve got oxygen poisoning, lost focus.”
“Wasn’t he supposed to have air in his tanks?”
“At the depth where he was judged to be when he died, he should’ve been using a tri-mix of oxygen, helium, and nitrogen, not just air alone. Compressed air below 180 feet can make your mind play tricks, make you hallucinate. Can be deadly.”
“So you think he could’ve run out of air, or thought he was out of air, shot to the top and drowned on the way up?”
“You figure I’m over-thinking this?”
“For a man who deals in exact science, you sure give out a shitload of maybes.”
“And I’ll keep giving them out until I can say some fer-sures.”
Frank moved to the doorway of the office and stared into the morgue.
“It can go several ways, Frank. Right now we need more information. Right now we don’t even know who this poor boy is.”
“You’re right. But my crap meter is way over on suspicious. You know, if someone murdered this guy, but afterward brought him ashore, or called the Coast Guard, I wouldn’t be thinking so much in the direction of foul play. But just leaving him out there? That has the hackles on my neck bristling .”
“We’ll know more by and by,” Henry said and rose from his chair.
“One thing’s for damn sure,” Frank said, “That fella wasn’t diving alone out there.”
Henry stepped over to Frank and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“I know you want by and by to be soon.” Henry said. “Like you, I don’t want the truth to drown with that young man.”
Thursday, July 13 – 9:10 AM
Orion “Orrie” Costello, Frank’s long time friend and proprietor of The Mariner’s Haven, spread out a chart of the local Atlantic Ocean on his showroom counter. The chart showed the coastal area as far north as Vero Beach and almost to Palm Beach County in its southern extreme.
Orrie operated the biggest ocean diving business in the southeast of Florida. He owned and captained a state-of-the-art dive boat, and his vast storehouse of underwater knowledge Frank drew upon often. It was said that Orrie’s mind was an encyclopedia of marine lore that almost anyone could tap by asking him any nautical question.
“They picked up the body here, off Fort Pierce,” Orrie said and pointed to a location fifteen miles out to sea from the beaches off the thin barrier known as Hutchinson Island. “The gulf stream currents in that area could place the actual drowning from that point back to anywhere south. Any idea about how long he may have drifted?”
“Henry says the body’d been dead for three to five hours,” Frank said, standing beside his friend.
“That could put him somewhere around here,” Orrie said and placed his finger on the chart at a point closer to shore and farther south.
“That’s still over twelve miles out off Stuart. That’s deep water.”
“More than 200 feet, give or take a few fathoms.”
“What’s of diving interest near there?”
“Well, they sunk an old navy ship,a small cruiser, not far from there about five years ago,” Orrie said, “but it’s only in maybe a hundred-and-thirty feet of water. Recreational diving depth. Wanted to create a reef for the sea life. Divers find those old wrecks irresistible for some reason.”
“Ever dive one?” Frank asked.
“I have, but it’s not as tempting to me as it is to others. Dangerous. Many a diver’s been tangled up inside those old scrap heaps. And for what? They always remove every worthwhile thing off a ship before they dunk her. Me? Give me the ancient galleons. Rotten wood and all.”
“If they’re ancient, I imagine there’s not a whole lot of wood, rotten or otherwise.”
“Aye to that, but what’d been stowed in her belly when she took the plunge, now that’s the magical stuff.”
“Like the things Mel Fisher pulled up from the Atocha?”
“Precisely. Gold artifacts, silver coins and ingots, bronze bells. Sleeping treasures and a library’s worth of rich history.”
“And what have you found so far?”
“Great Kodak moments and a couple of silver coins, but there’s more out there. A hell of a lot more, covered by a wee bit of sand.”
“What’s a ‘wee bit’ amount to?”
“Could be ten, fifteen feet of it.”
“If it’s under fifteen feet of sand, how do you know where to dig?” Frank asked.
“Ah, and that’s the tricky part. But I’ll save telling you how we do it for another day.”
Frank missed investigating cases with his Irish-American friend and called on him whenever his police work could use an extra set of trained eyes. Orrie had moved his charter boat company from Portland, Maine to Fort Pierce and specialized in sunken treasure exploration and underwater photography. Frank knew that a lot of ships went down off the eastern coast of Florida, old ships from back as far as the 17th Century, fleets laden with gold and silver that have never been uncovered. Frank trusted that Orrie one day would find his Atocha and make history in the bargain.
“What did you think about Henry’s assessment?” Frank said.
“The lad drowned. No doubt about that. I’ve seen too many like him. It’s why he drowned that needs to be answered. I want to see his gear.”
“In the evidence room back at the station.”
* * *
Orrie met Frank at the Sheriff’s Office in Stuart late in the afternoon. The diving equipment was laid out on a table in the caged evidence room lit by a fixture directly above, a special light that could duplicate bright sun, gray overcast, a sunset’s amber glow, and several varieties of artificial light. Orrie took particular interest in the gauges connected to the air tanks and adjusted the light to maximum brightness.
“They show no air,” Orrie said. “The fella had to see that.”
“Maybe he was sure he had plenty and didn’t check it until it was too late,” Frank said.
“He checks it early into the dive and he has full tanks. Later he starts having trouble getting air, but knows he shouldn’t be out. He makes sure his valves are fully open. No help, so he switches to his reserve tank. It’s out too.”
“How deep is he?”
“By his approximated nitrogen level, deep. Maybe over 180 feet, but time spent at that depth can vary the level.”
“What’s he do then?”
“Gets air from his dive buddies.”
“And he can’t find them,” Frank said.
Orrie began acting out the scene, swimming with his hands and darting frantic glances from one side of the room to the other.
“Panic sets in,” Orrie said. “He’s too deep to shoot to the top, but he has no choice. He inflates his lift bag and heads up, fast.”
“How long does that take?”
“Too long unless he can suck a last breath from the tanks. There should be reserve tanks up on the anchor line for the divers’ decompression stops. If he reaches one of them, maybe halfway up and switches mouthpieces, he could be okay.”
“But he wasn’t okay. He drowned.”
“Aye. He shot to the surface dead or dying. The irony here is that he had air in the lift bag that might’ve saved him.”
“Why didn’t he use it?”
“Inexperience, I suspect. Inexperience and panic, a deadly combination.”
“What were his chances if he had made the surface with air in his lungs?”
“Ascending that fast from 180 feet would put you in a serious situation for the bends. The nitrogen bubbles trying to leave his blood would cripple him or kill him, unless he could get immediately into a hyperbaric chamber, and I mean immediately.”
“Why was the anchor line tied to a buoy and not a boat?” Frank asked. “Where’s the boat that should’ve secured it? Where are those diving buddies?”
“Good questions all. With nary an answer right now.”
Frank’s cell rang.
“Dugan.” Frank said.
Frank looked over at Orrie as he listened for almost a minute to his phone.
“Got it,” Frank said and ended the call.
Orrie stared at Frank.
“His name is Chadwick. Michael Chadwick. Age twenty-eight from Jensen Beach.”
“Fingerprints on file?” Orrie asked.
“Yeah. Former Marine,” Frank said, his voice low. “Afghanistan vet. Bronze Star, Purple Heart. Wife and two little ones.”
“He survives international warfare, only to come back home to die prematurely in his own country.”
“He didn’t just die,” Frank said. “Somebody’s killed that man.”
* * *
Friday, July 14 – 8:05 AM
Sheriff Roland Brand sat tilted back in a big leather chair at his desk in the Martin County Sheriff’s Office in Stuart and bunched his mouth as he stared at a note on his lap. Frank Dugan leaned against the wall near a window, his arms folded.
“Make any sense of it?” Frank asked.
Roland turned toward Frank, pushed his reading glasses up onto his forehead, and looked at him for a moment.
“You got enemies in New York City?”
“That where it’s from?”
“Yeah, midtown. Should be easy enough to track down. Couldn’t be more than a couple a million folks living there.”
“Read it again.”
Roland flipped his glasses back onto his nose and read.
“ ‘The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.’ ”
“Shakespeare,” Frank said. “Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral. Why send that to me?”
“Who do you know in New York?”
“A couple of cops from my Baltimore PD days. An FBI agent or two. No literature scholars or Thespians.”
“This is sent to your attention. ‘To Detective Frank Dugan: The dead diver’s best friend.’ ”
“Well, one thing’s for sure. Michael Chadwick didn’t die by accident. By this note, somebody just as well as confessed.”
“And somebody wants you to know that,” Roland said and popped his chair upright, shifted his abundant frame forward, and tossed the note on his desk. “And that somebody knows you.”
“I got nothing.”
“Well, you’d better get something,” Roland said. “’Cause I got a strange feeling this somebody ain’t gonna stop until he gets your undivided attention.”
Frank recalled from his college history classes that Casca had been the first assassin to stab Julius Caesar in the Roman senate on March 15, 44 B.C., followed by several others; an Ides of March bloodbath that ended with Brutus plunging in one of the final daggers. That recollection was reinforced by the coincidence that Frank had once acted in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar when he was a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
More thought-provoking was the fact that Frank had played the part of Marcus Junius Brutus.