GULF COAST SWIMMER - MIKE WILKERSON
If you’re reading this, then my time has finally come and I’ve passed from this world. You came to me late in life - a mere ten years ago and your mother, although fifteen years my junior, left us soon after you arrived. You’re too young right now to understand the things I need to say, but already you’re smart and you’re strong and one day, you will indeed understand.
As I write this, the year is 2009 and it’s almost over. Soon, you’ll be eleven and I’ll be sixty-four. Time marches on. I suspect that when you finally read this, you’ll be well into your forties. And, while many would question the content of this admission, I know you will look beyond the unpleasant details and see only me - we’ve always owned that trust - and know that I’ve tried to be a good man. Memories from the past though, continue to remind me...
In my nightmares, I endeavor to drown but always fail. I just keep swimming out into the Gulf Of Mexico for seemingly miles and miles, but make no visible progress from shore. My mind begs me to stop, to simply give up, only my body refuses to correspond. I’ve spent my nights like this for over thirty years and I’m tired.
I’ll allow myself to go back and say that I was a different person before that day when it all began. That day...I was so young and optimistic, if not also a bit arrogant. Youth excused me from humanity. But since that day, shades of gray have camouflaged my world and I’ve been wide awake ever since. Affliction rides me, when all I want is to sleep. I regret saying this, with a child as beautiful as you in my life, but it is true just the same.
Through life’s journey, you will find that every person has a breaking point. We teeter on one leg for days, months or years and then we fall. Some get up, others never will. Vic Normandin took years before his tumble and this story is as much about him, as it is about me. I took mere seconds and I’m still falling. There’s a chance I might die tonight, finally ending the descent, finally ending the pain. As humans we all run the risk of death without warning. Deep down though, I know I’ll live well into my 90s or longer. Living is my penance. Regardless, there’s something I have to make right in my mind before I pass. I’m telling you this, because I want you to know the truth in my own words, the words I could not say to you while I lived on this Earth. I need that release.
St. Petersburg, Florida - 1979. Suburbanism was on the rise. Crime became concentrated into the mid and downtown areas. While a detriment to the city, transgression meant opportunity for me. I was moved to Homicide with only six years experience. I was on my way.
Vic Normandin was the big dog Homicide detective. He was only one year away from finishing his twenty. His physical characteristics said mid-forties. His eyes said a hundred. He was married to the same woman for twenty years and they were still deeply in love. They had two beautiful girls, one in her late teens, the other a late but cherished surprise - she was about your age. When his time was up, Vic was moving on. He wasn’t sentimental about his job. He’d seen enough. I needed to see more.
Vic was respected across the board by cohorts and higher-ups. Eyebrows were raised in unison, when he requested me for his partner - Vic liked working alone. The obvious question was asked: “Why the change of heart and why Mark Hertlein?”
His answer was as confusing as his choice: “The kid needs to understand.”
He never answered them. I thought I knew. I thought he meant I’d be learning the craft from a veteran. I wouldn’t truly understand until it was too late.
Vic didn’t talk much - actions speak louder than words. Vic’s actions blared in my ears every day on the job. Those first six months are still a blur. The hours we put in, the cases we investigated and the skill and patience he displayed. Still, I was disillusioned. I’d watched too many cop movies in my youth. I wanted to solve big juicy crimes. Vic would nod his head at my concerns. For six months, that’s all he would do; nod his goddamn head. I let it go.
Months later, I brought it up again, using a different tact.
“So why did you join the department? Obviously it’s not for the excitement.”
We were on Martin Luther King Street south. We’d just finished questioning eyewitnesses to a gas station shooting turned murder. I was reading my favorite business sign: “Bargain Phones and Shoes”. One of these days I was going to stop in, see what the deal was. The word jerked me back to life. I eyeballed Vic.
“Do you know what it means?”
“I’ve heard the word, that’s about it.”
“It means a division,” Vic said. “To me, that means establishing good from bad, right from wrong. I wanted to do the right thing, be a hero. It’s cliché, but true.”
I sighed and went back to looking out the window, at people going nowhere. I liked Vic, but didn’t always get him. My thoughts were cancelled when the radio screeched: “Shots fired in the vicinity of 4th street south and 10th avenue south.” Vic let out his own sigh, pinned the pedal to the floor, nailed the siren.
We were there within minutes. People were standing around outside an old bungalow, the best kept house in the area. One cruiser was already there. Two more arrived within thirty seconds.
“What’s the story, Bob?” Vic asked the initial cop on the scene, who now directed crowd control.
“I heard shots fired. I was right around the corner and got here toot sweet. I didn’t see anybody, but there’s a hell of mess inside.”
I turned to the crowd. “Anyone see anything?”
Scared people looked at the ground. Scared people walked away. Fear of retribution in this neighborhood was all too real.
Vic motioned for me to keep working the crowd while he went inside. Five minutes later, I’d found a witness in a seventy year-old lady. Vic was strolling back outside, head down, hands in pockets. His look was that of contemplation.
“What’s it like in there?”
Vic looked up, shook his head, let out a breath. “What’ve you got?”
“She was walking her dog, heard gunfire and saw a man leave the house.”
“White, medium height, medium build, only got a partial look at his face.”
Vic nodded, gave up a smile to the lady. “Ma’am, are you willing to look at some photos?”
The old lady was giddy - this was surefire bragging material. “Oh, sure!”
We took her to the station. Vic bought her coffee and turnovers from a downtown bakery. She called Vic a nice man. I agreed with her and winked at Vic.
We went through an hour of potential suspects. The lady said “maybe” to half of them. We arranged for her a ride back home, told her we’d be in touch. I rubbed my temples, drummed a pencil on my desk.
“Well, she gave us fucking zilch. So what happened inside the house?”
Vic stood up, checked his watch, nodded towards the door. “Let’s go. I’ll let you see for yourself.”
The house was roped off, Forensics inside. One of them gave a signal to stay back. I walked in behind Vic, stepped to the side for a better view. An audible breath escaped my mouth. I’d seen dead bodies before. This made me feel like a goddamn virgin. I felt my cherry go pop-pop-pop.
I looked them over: three victims, all black; one man, two women. The women were sprawled on the couch. The man was on the floor, a sandwich within arm’s reach - the last lunch he’d never eat. They were all missing the backs of their heads via large bore triple taps. Blood was splashed, pooled everywhere. Skull fragments, brain matter interlaced with the puddles of congealing blood - a grotesque pudding that spilled onto the couch and shag carpet. Doll eyes stared at nothing. Slack mouths lay wide open. They were speaking to me. They would never utter another word.
“I know them,” Vic said.
“Yeah, he’s Tim Barnes. This is his family. He was my partner and best friend. Retired three years ago...only black detective on the force.”
I continued to stare. My knees were going into business for themselves. I locked them in place before responding.
“What do you think happened?”
Vic twitched. I caught it.
“Repercussions,” he replied.
Nothing more was said. We spoke with Forensics, looked over the house. It was an in and out job by the killer or killers. The place was clean. Vic beat me to the car. I walked from a dark house out into a sun-bleached day. Humidity blanketed me. Sunlight scorched my pupils. I donned shades and humped it to the car anticipating full tilt A/C. Vic was just sitting there. The engine was off. Sweat was soaking through his shirt, dripping off his chin. I got in, gave him a “what the fuck?” look.
“Let’s take a ride,” he said.
And then he told me.
He and Tim were working a rape case. There were no color barriers to the victims: Black, White, Asian, Hispanic - all early teens, seven in all. Two girls lived. Vic and Tim both had daughters. Seeing the dead girls grated on them. Talking with the survivors, hearing their pain, fucked with their heads. They made a secret pact to exact justice. They worked the case like madmen, leaving no stone unturned. Semen samples were taken from the traumatized/murdered girls. Tests revealed males with matching blood types from all the victims. Surviving victim testimonies rendered drawings of two different men with similar features. Two names, faces popped up: Jack and Joe Carson; career criminals, brothers - a perverted family affair. Mug shots were produced. Both surviving girls broke down at the sight of the brother’s real life photos. Watching them, Vic and Tim almost did the same. They kept the information to themselves.
One month later, they received a snitch tip - information for reprieve. The detectives agreed, if the information was good.
It was. They found the Carson brothers holed up in a midtown shit palace. Only they didn’t call for backup. They couldn’t take a chance on a trial. Instead, they tortured then murdered the Carson brothers. They set it up carefully then walked away, justified in their actions.
They went back to work but held their secret. The brothers’ bodies were found a week later, a simple drug-deal-gone-bad setup. The rapes stopped. Vic and Tim didn’t feel a moment’s sympathy for the two degenerates. They went on with their lives.
We drove for an hour as Vic let it go. He didn’t sob in disgust with himself. He didn’t try to minimize what they did. When he was finished, I cracked my neck.
“When did this happen?”
“Three years ago. Tim retired directly afterwards.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Dichotomy - I crossed that line. I blurred the divisions and I hope you’ll never do the same. I don’t feel we were wrong, but the law is not open for interpretation. I’ve made my mistake in that regard. You haven’t and I don’t want you to.”
He also knew I’d never turn him in. After seeing the faces of those girls, no cop would.
We sat in silence for several minutes, driving down sun-grayed streets. Vic was waiting for something. He was waiting for me to get the punch line.
“Carson. That name isn’t ringing a bell for you?” It was the first time he’d ever displayed exasperation.
I wasn’t getting the gist. “Should it?”
“Who was the previous Governor of this state?”
“Dan Carson.” It clicked. “You mean they were related?”
“But how would he know who did it? Why wait so long, even if he did know?”
“Listen, he knew his brothers were fuck-ups. The only thing I can think of is that there were people keeping tabs on them, running interference for big brother. Someone put together the rapes, the brothers’ proclivities and subsequent deaths, along with the investigators in charge of the case - me and Tim. One of his stoolies probably saw or heard something. Carson wouldn’t make waves while he was in office, though; politicians don’t take chances like that. Think about it: do you remember even hearing about his brothers’ death in the news? No, you don’t, because it was swept under the rug.”
I shook my head. “That’s a hell of a reach, Vic. I mean, you don’t really think he’s coming after you?”
Then something happened that I’ll never forget. Vic turned towards me in what I remember as slow motion. My unintended revelation dawned on him. He looked like a death row prisoner, finally realizing his stay of execution was over. For the first time in eight months, emotion smothered him. First his face became a wild caricature. Then it completely melted. He didn’t say another word. The only thing I could hear was the sound of the engine as it redlined. The only thing I could see were cars as streamlined, painted smears when we passed them.
28th Avenue north, mid-afternoon, sunny day, average house. Vic launched our car into the circular, shrub-lined drive, still doing 50. Shrubs scraped against the passenger side of the vehicle, trapping me in. Brakes squealed on the concrete driveway. Vic - out of the car before it was fully stopped. I reached over, jammed it in park, followed through the driver’s door. Two steps in, I heard Vic screaming. I was four steps in when I heard his gun go off. I couldn’t have been more than fifteen seconds behind him.
I stood in the doorway, dropped to my knees. I felt my facial muscles lose their elasticity.
Sounds of life were muted and the walls closed in. I saw Vic on the ground, his head shattered, his blood sprayed on the wall. Across the front room window. Everywhere.
Then I saw the reason why.
All three of them were naked. All three of them were hanging from separate doorways - eyes bulging, tongues protruding and bodies strangely limp. They were his everything and now they were gone. It wasn’t like the movies; Vic didn’t trudge on to find justice. For Vic Normandin, there was nothing left to live for. In an instant, he made his final decision on life.
I looked around the room; smiling faces encased in blood splattered picture frames, belied the bodies in the room. Happy days at the beach. Warm summer nights at The Pier - never again. I recovered and called it in. Ten cruisers were there in less than five minutes. Neighbors came out to investigate. And, as the neighborhood came alive, I would slowly fall apart.
The number of people that Vic and Tim put behind bars was staggering. Of those people, half of them could’ve potentially murdered Vic, Tim and their families - they’d either served their time or were out on parole. We continued to sift through the evidence, interviewing suspects. When they petered out, we considered family member motive pertaining to those still in prison, or suspects of past crimes who were now dead. Dan Carson’s name was thrown in the trash, said not possible; he was the Governor, for God’s sake! I was there when they said it. I kept mum for Vic’s sake.
I began guzzling booze to help me sleep and forget. I put myself in Vic’s shoes at that moment of first seeing his family. I envisioned a lifetime flashing before my eyes. I tried to imagine living with that last, frozen image of them. Fifteen seconds to make a decision, based on what’s left to live for.
I couldn’t do it and that’s when I started to swim, every single night.
The sky was always overcast. The water was always calm, yet I was always pushed back. But I kept swimming, I never stopped. The water color changed between gray and red, red and gray. I changed between desperation and anger. Desperation to live, anger at my inability to give up and die. All night long I would swim, waking up to a pounding heart and drenched in sweat, every goddamn time. I was an emotional and physical mess. I was failing at my job, failing the people who counted on me. Two months in, on a drunken binge at 4:00 one morning, I made a decision. I planned long-term for my salvation: I drained booze down the sink. I ran for an hour, did a hundred pushups every day. I sweated out poison for the next year and a half. I lived with a new purpose.
I stayed on course. Just under two years after Vic killed himself, they found Dan Carson in his plush, Fort Meyers condo. Carson was lying in his bed while spread-eagle on his back. He wore smeared lipstick, eyeliner and rouge. A single strand of pearls were draped perfectly around his neck. They found an empty bottle of sleeping pills in one hand, a near empty bottle of expensive brandy in the other and a crystal dildo shoved in his mouth. The suicide note read:
“I cannot be the man I need to be, while living in this world. I no longer wish to hide myself, from those who I truly love. Pray for me and forgive me.”
Carson told me the names and whereabouts of the men he hired to murder Vic, Tim and their families. I promised I wouldn’t kill him if he gave them up.
I lied with gusto.
Time moved on. It was one year to the day since I’d murdered Dan Carson, when I made the decision to take a trip. I was still a cop and still on the wagon. Since Vic’s death nearly three years past, I’d saved up all of my vacation time. Due diligence was completed. I was ready to take some time off.
My first stop was near Kanopolis, Kansas. That’s where I met Clint and Justin Miley for the first and last time. They were killers for hire - Vic and Tim’s for sure. How many others, I would never know, would never care.
They owned the perfect cover - redneck brothers, living in Shitsville, USA. I wanted to know what ten thousand dollars and death can buy you. I caught them off-guard. I showed them a picture of Vic with his family. I made them beg for the quick death which they didn’t fucking deserve, which they didn’t fucking get.
From there, I went to Montana for a week. I’d seen the pictures my entire life. I was hoping that big, blue sky would grant me some peace and quiet.
At least it was quiet there.
Then I came back to Tampa Bay and back to being a detective in St. Petersburg, for almost twenty more years. I would go on to be involved in several other cases which would have a profound effect on me. Some might say they were even more brutal and terrible than what happened to Vic and his family. None of them, though, would affect me like Vic Normandin did. Does.
30 years...it seems so hard to believe. I’m 63 years old now and the good days are long gone. I try to spend as much time with you as possible. You are my center in an otherwise ambiguous world. Of course I’ve a few friends left, mostly old cops like me. I only allow them to visit when you’re off to school - I don’t want you to see our faces when we... Sometimes we talk.
Sometimes we say nothing at all, we just sit and nod our heads and drink the occasional beer. Most of them are in pretty bad shape, their bodies abused by too little sleep, too much booze and bad food. That’s what happens to a lot of cops, they worry about others, about the life and neglect themselves. They marvel at my physical condition. They ask me my secret and I can only smile. I’ll outlive them all by decades and I’ll live to see you become a beautiful young woman. Maybe that alone, will make this life worthwhile and possibly, you can look back and appreciate the blankness that sometimes comes over me now, while I am still alive.
I’ll also go on swimming, until one day the water and sky will finally turn an iridescent clear-blue. At that moment, I’ll stop the stroking of my arms and the paddling of my legs and feet. I’ll look back towards shore with the sun on my face and, as the Gulf swallows me, I’ll see progress. I’ll see you. Tranquility will replace desperation and I’ll cease to remember. This is my hope. This is the dream I am living to have.
With all my love,
BIO: Mike’s work can be found at A Twist Of Noir and Thrillers, Killers 'N' Chillers. He also loosely maintains a blog at Writing the Hard Way.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago