You don't normally find human heads inside cod. But they had at Morgan's Fish Wholesalers, in the gut of a four-footer they were cutting up for market.
Portchester Police Chief Paul Mansbridge scowled as he looked at the fish, lying on its side with its head removed and belly slit. The smell in the warehouse hit his Midwestern nose like a fist.
I know how you feel, pal, Mansbridge thought, looking into the cod's dead, staring eyes.
Turning his attention to the warehouse manager, he asked, "Who sold you this one?"
"Hard to say. Could be one of three or four brought in their catch from the weekend." Joe Mayne was a small, thin man with a pinched face, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and a Budweiser cap. He looked uncomfortable, but Mansbridge couldn't decide if it was because of the human head on the table between them, the chill in the building, or perhaps because the chief wasn't a local.
"I need names and phone numbers, any other contact information you've got." Mayne nodded and quickly walked out of the warehouse.
Mansbridge turned to the county coroner, Al Schumacher. "What do you think?"
Schumacher, a heavy, balding man whose shoulders were stooped from too many years of leaning over his work, squinted through thick, square-framed glasses as he studied the head.
"This," he said slowly, "is the piece of cod, which passeth all understanding."
Mansbridge allowed himself half a grin. "I don't think that's how the letter read when it got to Philippi."
"Ah! A man who knows his epistles," Schumacher said, straightening up. "Well, you know, generations of nearsighted monks, copying dusty texts over and over in dimly-lit monasteries; one monk gets a letter wrong, and there you are."
"Hmph." Closing his notepad, Mansbridge said, "Well, besides finding out who he is, the obvious question is how the poor bastard's head came off."
Schumacher nodded. "I suppose we can rule out the first recorded cod attack in history." Noticing the chief's raised eyebrow, he pointed at the fish's head. "Not with those teeth."
"Ah." And once again, the chief was reminded of just how far he was from Terre Haute, Indiana.
Entrusting his grisly charge to Schumacher, Mansbridge left the warehouse and stepped into brilliant sunshine. Taking a deep breath, he was thankful for an inland breeze that flushed the smell of fish from his sinuses.
He glanced at his watch and noted with satisfaction that he'd be back at the station before the school bus dropped off his ten-year-old daughter, Julie. She'd be okay until he got thereofficer Mike Lonski was on dutybut it was a matter of pride to be there on time every day.
His ex-wife made it clear toward the end of their ten-year marriage that she didn't think much of him as a husband. Angela complained long and loud every time work kept him away from home. Of course, Mansbridge thought, when I was home, she always had somewhere else that she needed to be.
It was a bright Monday afternoon, the sunlight and warmth a sharp contrast to the chief's darkening mood. The move to Portchester the year before was supposed to have helped his marriage. Angela had had enough of the Midwest, so Mansbridge thought landing the job as chief of Portchester's two-man police force a godsend. Portchester was only seven miles from her home town of Cold Harbor, where most of her family still lived.
By coincidence, Cold Harbor was also home to Angela's high school boyfriend, with whom she now shared an address.
Mansbridge laughed bitterly to himself. Coincidence? He knew his ex-wife better than that. He did the shopping, washed the clothes, fixed the meals, set the rules, and helped with the homework. She got to be the "fun" parent three weekends a month. And thanks to the family court judge, he couldn't go home to Indiana without Angela's permissionunless he left Julie behind.
Mansbridge shook his head, took a deep breath, and tried to drag himself out of the quicksand of self-pity. He'd won primary physical custody, at least; there were thousands of divorced fathers who'd trade places with him in a heartbeat.
Mansbridge walked into the Portchester police station and raised his hand in greeting to Mike Lonski, a big, cheerful, blond kid who'd returned home from college last year to begin a career in law enforcement. The chief smiled as he considered how miscast his hulking, crewcut deputy was as Barney Fife to his Andy Taylor.
"Hey, chief," Lonski called, looking up from a file cabinet he was organizing. "Was that call for real?"
"Yep." Mansbridge went to his coffee-maker and dumped out the pot. "A human head, adult male, Caucasian, probably mid-twenties to mid-thirties, long dark hair. Inside a four-foot-long, eighty-pound cod."
He rinsed out the carafe as he talked, then refilled the reservoir, measured precisely eight teaspoons of finely ground Colombian Supremo into the cone filter, and slid the basket back into place. He took a deep breath, and the rich aroma cleared his head and helped him relax. Angela had started him on mail-order gourmet coffee a few years ago; that was one thing he could thank her for, at least. Take away his every luxury, and the one he'd keep would be his sixteen-dollar-a-pound coffee beans.
"Unbe-stinkin'-lievable." The chief's daughter spent a lot of time at the station so Lonski tried to watch his language, sometimes with unintentionally comic results. The big deputy closed the file cabinet and sat down at his desk. "Any ID on the victim?"
"Not yet." Mansbridge tore open a package of peanut butter snack crackers. The smell of the ground coffee had kick-started his appetite. "Want one?"
"Sure. Thanks." The chief flicked one with his thumb like flipping a quarter. Lonski made a one-handed catch.
"Joe Mayne at Morgan's is supposed to call or come by with a list of fishermen who might have brought in the fish," Mansbridge continued. "Says it could be any of three or four boats that came in over the weekend."
"Hmm." Lonski chewed on his cracker and swallowed. "What can I do?"
"Check missing persons reports. Al Schumacher will probably need all the help he can get to make an ID."
The front door suddenly burst open, propelled by a ten-year-old perpetual motion device that bore a strong resemblance to the chief.
"Hi, Dad!" Julie closed the door with a slam and trotted over to Mansbridge. "You gotta see what we did at school today. It's so cool!" She swung her backpack off her shoulders and plunked it into the empty chair next to his desk.
"Hi, sweetheart!" Mansbridge gathered her up into a bear hug, eighty-two pounds of blonde ponytail and sneakers, smelling of sunshine. "You know," he said, setting her down, "I asked you before to close that door without slamming it."
"Sorry, Dad." Julie was remorseful for about half a second. "But look at this!" She dug into the rat's nest of books, papers, and half-used pencils in her backpack. "We're learning about sharks and whales, and I checked this out of the library!" She held out a book about killer whales.
"Killer whales, huh?" Lonski walked up and looked over Julie's shoulder. "Pretty scary."
Julie shook her head. "No, they're not. They don't attack people, only sharks and seals and stuff." She turned back to her dad. "I'm gonna do a report on them, like a news report." She thought for a second. "Do you think Mom can make me a killer whale costume?"
Mansbridge raised an eyebrow. "A news report anchored by a killer whale? I don't remember anything like that when I was in school." A whooshing noise from his coffee-maker told him the pot was ready. "Well, I don't know. You'll have to ask Mom, to see if she has time."
"Can I call her now?" Julie could fix on an idea with the determination of a pit bull. The chief smiled to himself. He knew the look in her eye. He'd seen it in the mirror.
"All right, use my phone," he said, getting up to pour his coffee. "Then you need to get on your homework." He smiled. "See what you can find out about killer codfish."
Julie gave him that look, the one parents get when they say something utterly ridiculous. "Dad," she said, "there is no such thing."
Ignoring Lonski's grin, he asked innocently, "There's not?"
"Everybody knows cod can't hurt you."
"Hmph. So I hear."
Like his daughter, Mansbridge was busy with paperwork the rest of the afternoon. Joe Mayne called in his list of prospects just before five o'clock. Mansbridge left them with Lonski, who kept the station open until seven, and asked him to try and reach them by phone to set times for interviews the following day.
Mansbridge got to the station the next morning, as always, around seven o'clock. He'd made arrangements with Julie's school for her bus to stop at the station instead of at home. It gave him more time to organize his day.
It also allowed Julie time to clean his clock at a few hands of Uno. Mansbridge was behind by about two thousand points in their running card game, which had begun a year ago last spring, before the move from Indiana.
After kissing his daughter good-bye, he turned his attention to Mike Lonski's note:
"Got hold of two out of four. Not badfishermen after good trip usually out spending money. Call tomorrow Rusty Chapman, captain of 'Bonnie Brae', and Gil Fortman, owner and captain of 'Nancy Anne'."
At the bottom, Lonski had listed phone numbers and addresses.
Assuming early morning to be a nonproductive time to deal with fishermen on shore, Mansbridge decided to call them later. He poured another cup of Colombian and took a chance that Al Schumacher was in early. The phone rang a dozen times before he gave up.
Sighing, he picked up the missing persons bulletins Lonski collected and scanned them for anything relevant.
A couple of possibilities caught the chief's eye. One was a fisherman named Gary Reese who went overboard a little way up the coast a few days earlier. It seemed straightforward; the other five on the boat swore it was an accident, the kind that happens all too often in their line of work. The body hadn't been found yet, unless the head in the cod belonged to the late Mr. Reese. Mansbridge made a note to talk with Schumacher and local Coast Guard to see if the time and place were a match, once he found out which boat brought in the cod.
Of course, there was the problem of determining how far the head might have traveled before or after the fish scooped it up, not to mention how the head came off the body to begin with.
Mansbridge sighed again. At least when a body turned up in the Wabash River, which wasn't often, predicting the flow of the current was pretty easy. And you didn't find body parts inside the fish.
The second disappearance that interested him was a sometime fisherman with no fixed address. Patrick Summers hadn't shown up for a job about four days ago and the captain of the boat he missed was concerned. Lonski had taken the initiative and called the captain, and Mike's attached note advised that Summers may have had some money problems.
If the head belonged to Summers, Mansbridge thought, his journey into the belly of the cod might have begun onshore.
Well, it was a starting point. Both men were about the right age and their descriptions roughly matched. He could start by trying to find dental records for Al Schumacher and checking connections to people on the four boats that came into Morgan's over the weekend.
Stretching, Mansbridge stood and rubbed his eyes, squinting as he looked out the front window of the station into the bright sunlight of a crisp spring day. Blevins, the drugstore across the street, was just opening for the day. It would be another hour before Jacob Stevens, the owner of the hardware store next to it, switched on his lights.
His phone chirped, and Mansbridge picked up on the second ring. "Portchester Police. Chief Mansbridge."
"Paul? Al Schumacher."
"Hello, Al," Mansbridge said. "I tried you this morning, early, but I guess I beat you to the office today."
Schumacher chuckled. "Most days, I'd venture. Anyhow, I've got some thoughts for you on that head we looked at yesterday."
"Let me get my note pad." Mansbridge scrambled to find the notebook and his favorite fat-handled pen. "Okay, go ahead."
"Okay. First, I don't believe our fella spent any time in the ocean."
The chief's eyebrows reached for his receding hairline. "What? Somebody put his head in the cod?"
"Ah, I can't go that far, but I'll say this: Despite the appearance of the subject, which leads me to believe he'd been in a salt water environment for twenty-four to thirty-six hours, there's no indication of scavengers, no mud or sand in the mouth, nose, or ear canals, things you'd expect from an object rolling about on the ocean floor."
Schumacher paused for a moment. "I will say it seems less than likely that a cod would have been able to get to the head while it sank to the bottom. Assuming, of course, the head fell from a boatwhich presumes the head had already been separated from its owner."
Shutting his eyes for a moment, Mansbridge silently cursed himself for missing the absence of scavenger marks. That even happens in the Wabash.
"Okay, Al, what else?"
"Well," Schumacher said, "that leads to my next point: I can tell you the head was removed by some sort of cutting tool."
"I don't have the background to tell you that. But I know the difference between bite marks and knife marks."
"Knife...." Mansbridge thought for a moment. "Al, we have reports on a couple of missing persons that might be a match. If we track down dental records, can you ID the victim?"
"I'm not sure," Schumacher replied. "Maybe. But his teeth weren't in good shape. There may not be any records to work with."
"Great." Mansbridge sighed. "Well, we'll check anyway and see what we turn up. Take care of that head, Al. We're going to need him."
Waiting patiently was not something that came naturally to Paul Mansbridge. He'd learned the hard way, doing undercover work. Terre Haute, Indiana isn't exactly a hotbed of criminal activity but it has its share, and Mansbridge had seen how carelessness and impatience could destroy an investigation that had taken months to develop.
He drank a third cup of coffee and paced while he waited for Mike Lonski to get in at ten o'clock. He rolled in around a quarter 'til and the chief quickly filled him in on his conversation with Schumacher.
He got Lonski on the phone and the computer, checking for anything he could learn about the two missing men, then he dumped out the rest of his coffee, rinsed his mug, grabbed his jacket and walked out the door.
The breeze off the ocean smelled clean and fresh this morning. The salt tang in the air made him feel even more alert than the coffee. Mansbridge took a deep breath and had to admit it beat hell out of the smell from the paper mill that gives Terre Haute its unique aroma.
The chief found Joe Mayne giving orders to a couple of his men in the warehouse. If Mayne noticed the fishy smell, he didn't show it; to Mansbridge, the stink was as bad as yesterday, and he couldn't imagine ever getting used to it.
"Mr. Mayne," Mansbridge said, walking up behind the smaller man.
Mayne, silhouetted against the open warehouse doors fronting the harbor, looked surprised to see the chief again. "What, ah, can I help you with?"
"Well, I'm not sure." His tone of voice conveyed confusion and genuine need of assistance. "I have a puzzle on my hands, and I think you might be able to help."
Mayne took off his cap and wiped the back of his forearm across his brow. "Well, I'll try."
Mansbridge pulled out his notebook and referred to it. "I appreciate that. It seems the head you found...."
"One of my men found it," Mayne interrupted. "He called it in."
"The head your man found," Mansbridge continued, "might never have been in the ocean. Now, can you tell me how a cod could swallow a man's head without that man being in the ocean?"
Mayne frowned and continued chewing on his cheek. "Naw," he finally said. "Can't imagine."
"Hmm," Mansbridge said. "It's a puzzle, isn't it? Because if the head never went in the ocean, it had to go into the fish after the fish came out of the ocean. Am I right?"
"Yeah, guess so." Mayne looked over his shoulder for a second. "Well, ah, if that's all, I got work..."
"No, that's not all," Mansbridge stopped him. "I want you to show me around. I'm from Indiana, and I don't know squat about the fishing business. How you process the fish, that sort of thing. I'm kind of interested. Just for my own curiosity, if you don't mind."
"Well, ah..." Mayne dithered, then said, "All right, come on."
Following the smaller man, Mansbridge noticed a large cache of fish on ice, where they'd been during his visit the day before.
"Um, Joe?" Mansbridge stopped and pointed. "I thought the fish had to be cut up almost as soon as you got it, to keep it fresh."
Mayne looked. "No, ah, that's a catch that was brought in yesterday."
"No, no," the chief continued. "I remember that swordfish being just there, on top. I'm sure that was there yesterday. From a catch brought in over the weekend, you said."
Mansbridge walked toward the mound of fish and ice. The cold radiating from the small hill reminded him of recent adventures in the frozen food aisle. The chief was still struggling to establish a system for shopping and cooking, and he gave thanks each night for microwave technology.
His thoughts were interrupted by the chirp of his cell phone. Excusing himself from Joe Mayne, he pulled the phone from the inside pocket of his jacket. "Hello, Paul Mansbridge."
"Chief?" It was Mike Lonski. "Got something on Pat Summers."
"Go ahead." Mansbridge looked closely at the fish; even to his untrained eye, they looked past peak freshness. Why were they still here?
"Summers did time a few years ago in Florida for trying to sell coke to a DEA agent. A few other arrests and convictions, mostly possession. Got out of prison two years ago and seems to have stayed out of trouble since then."
"Uh huh." Mansbridge walked up to the fish, his shoes splashing through a rivulet of runoff from the melting ice.
"You with me?"
"Yeah, sorry, Mike." Mansbridge looked at the belly of what he thought was another cod, protruding from the ice. "Just looking at something here. You say Summers did time in Florida on drug charges? What's he doing fishing up here?"
"Well, chief, it's a pretty tough way to make a living," Lonski said. "Dangerous. A lot of the guys on the boats do it because it's hard to find guys who will. It pays good when the fishing's good, but it's easy to lose a finger or an eye if you're not careful. So a lot of boat owners pay in cash and don't ask too many questions about their men."
Mansbridge grunted a response. The seed of a hunch sprouted at the back of his brain. "Hey, Mike? What was the name of the boat Summers was supposed to meet?"
"Uh, just a sec." The chief heard the sound of rustling papers. He looked around and noticed that Joe Mayne had abandoned him. In fact, he didn't see anyone nearby. Even the two men who'd been cutting up fish earlier seemed to be taking a break.
Lonski came back on the line. "Here it is. The 'Mighty Quinn'."
"Who owns that boat?"
"I can find out. Give me five minutes."
Paul Mansbridge had never liked fishing, not even those summertime Saturdays as a kid when his grandfather took him down to the Wabash with a couple of poles and a Styrofoam cup full of worms. He loved hearing his grandpa's stories of serving in World War One and as a Treasury Agent in the twenties and thirties, but he hated unhooking the fish he caught, and he'd never cleaned one in his life.
Grabbing the cod and yanking it from the pile of fish and ice required more intestinal control than he'd probably admit in front of his daughter.
Pulling out his penlight and staring inside it required even more.
His phone chirped again. "Yeah. Mansbridge."
"Hey, chief, guess what?"
"What do you have, Mike?"
"The 'Mighty Quinn' is owned by Steve Morgan, owner and proprietor of Morgan's Fish Wholesalers," Lonski said. "Now, isn't that a interesting coincidence?"
"Very," Mansbridge replied. "Thanks, Mike. I'll see you in a few minutes."
As he reached to put his phone back into his jacket, something caught his eye, back deep inside the fish's mouth. Grunting, Mansbridge stuck the penlight between his teeth, grabbed the jaws of the fish, and pulled them open as wide as he could. Breathing around the penlight to avoid the smell, he leaned forward for a closer look.
Like Jonah trying to escape the belly of the beast, the grasping fingers of a human hand extended from the creature's throat.
The penlight slipped from the chief's mouth, clattering across the floor. As Mansbridge dropped the fish and reached to pick it up, he was startled by a crack! next to his ear.
A shower of ice chips exploded across his face, stinging like dozens of tiny darts. Quickly turning his head, his right eye closed by the icy spray, he saw Joe Mayne rear back with a baseball bat for a second swing.
Mansbridge lunged like a defensive tackle at the snap of the ball. He caught Mayne in the solar plexus with his shoulder and drove him off his feet with a tackle that would have made his junior-high football coach proud. Even at only one-ninety, Mansbridge still had at least forty pounds on Mayne, and their impact with the cold concrete floor stunned the smaller man long enough for the chief to roll him over and slap on wrist restraints.
Rolling off Mayne's back, Mansbridge pulled pistol and radio from their holsters. Scanning the warehouse for movement, he called back to the station. "Mike? Paul."
"Get down to Morgan's, double quick. Stop anyone trying to leave the building."
"You got it."
"And get the state boys down here, too. Now."
Returning the radio to its belt clip, Mansbridge considered the man lying in front of him. "Congratulations," he said. "You're the catch of the day."
"So Morgan brought the cocaine up from the Caribbean, stuffed the bags into fish, and Summers smuggled it inside the fish down to New York." Lonski was pacing back and forth inside the station house, still flushed with the morning's excitement. "What I don't get is why Morgan had Summers killed."
Mansbridge, trying to relax with his feet up on his desk and a mug of Hawaiian Kona in his hand, said, "Three guesses: One, Summers was skimming off the top. Two, Summers got greedy and tried to shake Morgan down. Or three, Summers chickened and wanted out. We'll find out when we see Mayne's statement."
"Lucky break that Mayne didn't want to take the fall for Summers by himself," Lonski said.
"Luckier that one of the new guys over there starting cutting up the wrong pile of fish." Mansbridge took another sip of coffee. "Clever of Morgan to have his captain report Summers missing, though. If he's lucky, anyone looking for Summers goes looking onshore. Meanwhile, one of his boats is dumping a load of spoiled fish full of Summers' parts into the ocean."
Lonski grimaced. "What a way to handle employee relations."
Mansbridge stood and stretched, cracking his knuckles. "I never liked fish. And I swear, Mike, finding Summers' arm inside that cod will put me off fish forever."
"That fish saved your ass, chief," Lonski said.
The deputy looked at Mansbridge. "If you don't drop that penlight, Mayne uses your head for a tee-ball." He paused for emphasis. "And you're on the next boat, with Summers."
Mansbridge shuddered involuntarily. He'd been trying not to think about how close he'd been to burial at sea.
Ironic, Mansbridge thought. He'd taken this job partly because of the sleepy, small-town lifestyle. Who'd figure on a drug ring in a town with one stop light?
He looked out the window, past Blevins Drugstore, to the water in the harbor dancing in the mid-afternoon sunshine. How many secrets lay hidden beneath the surface? Or beneath a woman's smile, for that matter, the chief thought.
The front door of the Portchester police station banged open, announcing Julie Mansbridge, finished with another day of elementary education.
"Hi, Officer Lonski! Hi, Dad!" She stopped dead in her tracks three steps shy of his desk. "Pew! You smell like fish!"
"Tough," said Mansbridge, walking over and scooping her up in his arms. He held her tightly, for a long time. Mike Lonski tactfully looked for something to file.
"Uh, Dad?" Julie's voice was muffled by the chief's shoulder, or maybe she was holding her nose. He couldn't tell and didn't care. "Dad? You can let me go now."
"Someday, kiddo," said the chief, "but
not yet. Not yet."