Jack Ryder Mystery Series: Vol 1-3, Page 2Willow Rose
The dog quickly gave in to nature and did his business. Ben had a plastic bag that he picked it up with and threw it in the trash can behind the house.
It was a beautiful day out. One of those clear days with a blue sky and not a cloud anywhere on the horizon. The wind was blowing out of the north and had been for two days, making the air drier. For once, Ben’s shirt didn’t stick to his body.
He threw the ball a few times for the dog to get some exercise. Ben could smell the ocean, even though he lived on the back side of the barrier island. When it was quiet, he could even hear it too. The waves had to be good. If he wasn’t too sick from drinking last night, his dad might take him surfing.
Ben really hoped he would.
It had been months since his dad last took him to the beach. He never seemed to have time anymore. Sometimes, Ben would take his bike and ride down there by himself, but it was never as much fun as when the entire family went. They never seemed to do much together anymore. Ben wondered if it had anything to do with what happened to his baby sister a year ago. He never understood exactly what had happened. He just knew she didn’t wake up one morning when their mother went to pick her up from her crib. Then his parents cried and cried for days and they had held a big funeral. But the crying hadn’t stopped for a long time. Not until it was replaced with a lot of sleeping and his parents staying up all night, and all the empty bottles that Ben often cleaned up from the kitchen and put in the recycling bin.
Bobby brought back the ball and placed it at Ben’s feet. He picked it up and threw it again. It landed close to the seawall. Luckily, it didn’t fall in. Bobby ran to get it, then placed it at Ben’s feet again, looking at him expectantly.
“Really? One more time, then we’re done,” he said, thinking he’d better get back inside and start cleaning up. He picked up the ball and threw it. The dog stormed after it again and disappeared for a second down the hill leading to the canal. Ben couldn’t see him.
“Bobby?” he yelled. “Come on, boy. We need to get back inside.”
He stared in the direction of the canal. He couldn’t see the bottom of the yard. He had no idea if Bobby had jumped in the water again. His heart started to pound. He would have to wake up his dad if he did. He was the only one who could get Bobby out of the water.
Ben stood frozen for a few seconds until he heard the sound of Bobby’s collar, and a second later spotted his black dog running towards him with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
“Bobby!” Ben said. He bent down and petted his dog and best friend. “You scared me, buddy. You forgot the ball. Well, we’ll have to get that later. Now, let’s go back inside and see if Mom and Dad are awake.”
Ben grabbed the handle and opened the door. He let Bobby go in first.
“Mom?” he called.
But there was no answer. They were probably still asleep. Ben found some dog food in the cabinet and pulled the bag out. He spilled on the floor when he filled Bobby’s tray. He had no idea how much the dog needed, so he made sure to give him enough, and poured till the bowl overflowed. Ben found a garbage bag under the sink and had removed some of the bottles, when Bobby suddenly started growling. The dog ran to the bottom of the stairs and barked. Ben found this to be strange. It was very unlike Bobby to act this way.
“What’s the matter, boy? Are Mom and Dad awake?”
The dog kept barking and growling.
“Stop it!” Ben yelled, knowing how much his dad hated it when Bobby barked. “Bad dog.”
But Bobby didn’t stop. He moved closer and closer to the stairs and kept barking until the dog finally ran up the stairs.
“No! Bobby!” Ben yelled. “Come back down here!”
Ben stared up the stairs after the dog, wondering if he dared to go up there. His dad always got so mad if he went upstairs when they were sleeping. He wasn’t allowed up there until they got out of bed. But, if he found Bobby up there, his dad would get really mad. Probably talk about getting rid of him again.
He’s my best friend. Don’t take my friend away.
“Bobby,” he whispered. “Come back down here.”
Ben’s heart was racing in his chest. There wasn’t a sound coming from upstairs. Ben held his breath, not knowing what to do. The last thing he wanted on a day like today was to make his dad angry. He expected his dad to start yelling any second now.
Oh no, what if he jumps into their bed? Dad is going to get so mad. He’s gonna get real mad at Bobby.
“Bobby?” Ben whispered a little louder.
There was movement on the stairs, the black lab peeked his head out, then ran down the stairs.
“There you are,” Ben said with relief. Bobby ran past him and sprang up on the couch.
“What do you have in your mouth? Not one of mom’s shoes again.”
It didn’t look like it was big enough to be a shoe. Ben walked closer, thinking if it was a pair of Mommy’s panties again, then the dog was dead. He reached down and grabbed the dog’s mouth, then opened it and pulled out whatever it was. He looked down with a small shriek at what had come out of the dog’s mouth. He felt nauseated, like the time when he had the stomach-bug and spent the entire night in the bathroom. Only this was worse.
It’s a finger. A finger wearing Mommy’s ring!
“Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more no more no more.”
The children’s voices were screaming more than singing on the bus. I preferred Wheels on the Bus, but the kids thought it was oh so fun, since my name was Jack and I was actually driving the bus. I had volunteered to drive them to the Brevard Zoo for their field trip today. Two of the children, the pretty blonde twins in the back named Abigail and Austin, were mine. A boy and a girl. Just started Kindergarten six months ago. I could hardly believe how fast time passed. Everybody told me it would, but still. It was hard to believe.
I was thirty-five and a single dad of three children. My wife, Arianna, ran out on us four years ago…when the twins were almost two years old. It was too much, she told me. She couldn’t cope with the children or me. She especially had a hard time taking care of Emily. Emily was my ex-partner’s daughter. My ex-partner, Lisa, was shot on duty ten years ago during a chase in downtown Miami. The shooter was never captured, and it haunted me daily. I took Emily in after her mother died. What else could I have done? I felt guilty for what had happened to her mother. I was supposed to have protected my partner. Plus, the girl didn’t know her father. Lisa never told anyone who he was; she didn’t have any of her parents or siblings left, except for a homeless brother who was in no condition to take care of a child. So, I got custody and decided to give Emily the best life I could. She was six when I took her in, sixteen now, and at an age where it was hard for anyone to love you, besides your mom and dad. I tried hard to be both for her. Not always with much success. The fact was, I had no idea what it was like to be a black teenage girl.
Personally, I believed Arianna had depression after the birth of the twins, but she never let me close enough to talk about it. She cried for months after the twins were born, then one day out of the blue, she told me she had to go. That she couldn’t stay or it would end up killing her. I cried and begged her to stay, but there was nothing I could do. She had made up her mind. She was going back upstate, and that was all I needed to know. I shouldn’t look for her, she said.
“Are you coming back?” I asked, my voice breaking. I couldn’t believe anyone would leave her own children.
“I don’t know, Jack.”
“But…The children? They need you? They need their mother?”
“I can’t be the mother you want me to be, Jack. I’m just not cut out for it. I’m sorry.”
Then she left. Just like that. I had no idea how to explain it to the kids, but somehow I did. As soon as they started asking questions, I told them their mother had left and that I believed she was coming back one day. Some, maybe a lot of people, including
my mother, might have told me it was insane to tell them that she might be coming back, but that’s what I did. I couldn’t bear the thought of them growing up with the knowledge that their own mother didn’t want them. I couldn’t bear for Emily to know that she was part of the reason why Arianna had left us, left the twins motherless. I just couldn’t. I had to leave them with some sort of hope. And maybe I needed to believe it too. I needed to believe that she hadn’t just abandoned us…that she had some stuff she needed to work out and soon she would be back. At least for the twins. They needed their mother and asked for her often. It was getting harder and harder for me to believe she was coming back for them. But I still said she would.
And there they were.
On the back seat of the bus, singing along with their classmates, happier than most of them. Mother or no mother, I had provided a good life for them in our little town of Cocoa Beach. As a detective working for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, working their homicide unit, I had lots of spare time and they had their grandparents close by. They received all the love in the world from me and their grandparents, who loved them to death (and let them get away with just about anything).
Some might think they were spoiled brats, but to me they were the love of my life, the light, the…the…
What the heck were they doing in the back?
I hit the brakes a little too hard at the red light. All the kids on the bus fell forwards. The teacher, Mrs. Allen, whined and held on to her purse.
“Abigail and Austin!” I thundered through the bus. “Stop that right now!”
The twins grinned and looked at one another, then continued to smear chocolate on each other’s faces. Chocolate from those small boxes with Nutella and sticks you dipped in it. Boxes their grandmother had given them for snack, even though I told her it had to be healthy.
“Now!” I yelled.
“Sorry, Dad,” they yelled in unison.
“Well…wipe that off or…”
I never made it any further before the phone in my pocket vibrated. I pulled it out and started driving again as the light turned green.
“Ryder. We need you. I spoke with Ron and he told me you would be assisting us. We desperately need your help.”
It was the head of the Cocoa Beach Police Department. Weasel, we called her. I didn’t know why. Maybe it had to do with the fact that her name was Weslie Seal. Maybe it was just because she kind of looked like a weasel because her body was long and slender, but her legs very short. Ron Harper was the county sheriff and my boss.
“This is big. We need you now.”
“If you say so. I’ll get there as fast as I can,” I said, and turned off towards the entrance to the zoo. The kids all screamed with joy when they saw the sign. Mrs. Allen shushed them.
“What, are you running a day-care now? Not that I have the time to care. Everything is upside down around here. We have a dead body. I’ll text you the address. Meet you there.”
Annie was getting ready. She was putting on make-up with her room-mate Julia, while listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and singing into their hairbrushes. They were nineteen, in college, and heading for trouble, as Annie’s father always said.
Annie wanted to be a teacher.
“Are you excited?” Julia asked. “You think he’s going to be there?”
“He,” was Tim. He was the talk of the campus and the guy they all desired. He was tall, blond, and a quarterback. He was perfect. And he had his eye on Annie.
“I hope so,” Annie said, and put on her jacket with the shoulder pads. “He asked me to come; he’d better be.”
She looked at her friend, wondering why Tim hadn’t chosen Julia instead. She was much prettier.
“Shall we?” Julia asked and opened the door. They were both wearing heavy make-up and acid-washed jeans.
Annie was nervous as they walked to the party. She had never been to a party in a fraternity house before. She had been thrilled when Tim came up to her in the library where she hung out most of the time and told her there was a party at the house and asked if she was going to come.
“Sure,” she had replied, while blushing.
“This is it,” Julia said, as they approached the house. Kids a few years older than them were hanging out on the porch, while loud music spilled out through the open windows. Annie had butterflies in her stomach as they went up the steps to the front of the house and entered, elbowing themselves through the crowd.
The noise was intense. People were drinking and smoking everywhere. Some were already making out on a couch. And it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet.
“Let’s get something to drink,” Julia yelled through the thick clamor. “Have you loosen up a little.”
Julia came back with two cups, and…Tim. “Look who I found,” she said. “He was asking for you.”
Annie grabbed the plastic cup and didn’t care what it contained; she gulped it down in such a hurry she forgot to breathe. Tim was staring at her with that handsome smile of his. Then, he leaned over, put his hand on her shoulder, and whispered. “Glad you came.”
Annie blushed and felt warmth spread through her entire body from the palm of Tim’s hand on her shoulder. She really liked him. She really, really liked him.
“It’s very loud in here. Do you want to go somewhere?” he asked.
Annie knew she wasn’t the smartest among girls. Her mother had always told her so. She knew Tim, who was pre-med, would never be impressed with her conversational skills or her wits. If she was to dazzle him, it had to be in another way.
“Sure,” she said.
“Let me get us some drinks first,” Tim said and disappeared.
Julia smiled and grabbed Annie’s shoulders. “You got him, girl.” Then she corrected Annie’s hair and wiped a smear of mascara from under her eyes.
“There. Now you’re perfect. Remember. Don’t think. You always overthink everything. Just be you. Just go with the flow, all right? Laugh at his jokes, but not too hard. Don’t tell him too much about yourself; stay mysterious. And, whatever you do…don’t sleep with him. You hear me? He won’t respect you if you jump into bed with him right away. You have to play hard to get.”
Annie stared at Julia. She had never had sex with anyone before, and she certainly wasn’t going to now. Not yet. She had been saving herself for the right guy, and maybe Tim was it, but she wasn’t going to decide that tonight. She didn’t even want to.
“I’d never do that,” she said with a scoff. “I’m not THAT stupid.”
Weasel was standing outside the house as I drove up and parked the school bus on the street. The house on West Bay Drive was blocked by four police cars and lots of police tape. I saw several of my colleagues walking around in the yard. Weasel spotted me and approached. She was wearing tight black jeans, a belt with a big buckle, a white shirt, and black blazer. She looked to be in her thirties, but I knew she had recently turned forty.
“What the…?” she said with a grin, looking at the bus. She had that raspy rawness to her voice, and I always wondered if she could sing. I pictured her as a country singer. She gave out that tough vibe.
“Don’t ask,” I said. “What have we got?”
“Homicide,” Weasel answered. “Victim is female. Laura Bennett, thirty-two, Mom of Ben, five years old. The husband’s name is Brandon Bennett.”
My heart dropped. I knew the boy. He was in the twins’ class. I couldn’t believe it. I had moved to Cocoa Beach from Miami in 2008 and never been called out to a homicide in my own town. Our biggest problems around here were usually tourists on spring break jumping in people’s pools and Jacuzzis and leaving beer cans, or the youngsters having bonfires on the beach and burning people’s chairs and leaving trash.
But, murder? That was a first for me in
Cocoa Beach. I had been called out to drug related homicides in the beachside area before, but that was mostly further down south in Satellite Beach and Indialantic, but never this far up north.
“It’s bad,” Weasel said. “I have close to no experience with this type of thing, but you do. We need all your Miami-experience now. Show me what you’ve got.”
I nodded and followed her into the house. It was located on a canal leading to the Banana River, like most of the houses on the back side of the island. The house had a big pebble-coated pool area with two waterfalls, a slide, and a spa overlooking the river. The perfect setting for Florida living, the real estate ad would say. With the huge palm trees, it looked like true paradise. Until you stepped inside.
The inside was pure hell.
It was a long time since I had been on a murder scene, but the Weasel was right. I was the only one with lots of experience in this field. I spent eight years in downtown Miami, covering Overtown, the worst neighborhood in the town, as part of the homicide unit. My specialty was the killer’s psychology. I was a big deal back then. But when I met Arianna and she became pregnant with the twins, I was done. It was suddenly too dangerous. We left Miami to get away from it. We moved to Cocoa Beach, where my parents lived, to be closer to my family and to get away from murder.
Now, it had followed me here. It made me feel awful. I hated to see the town’s innocence go like this.
My colleagues from the Cocoa Beach Police Department greeted me with nods as we walked through the living room, overlooking the yard with the pool. I knew all of them. They seemed a little confused. For most of them, it was a first. Officer Joel Hall looked pale.
“Joel was first man here,” Weasel said.