“Homeless” by Karl Miller

“Mommy, what’s the matter with Daddy?”

Kevin Pierce looks through the open window of the Civic to see a thin child pulling on the leg of her mother’s dirty jeans as the woman and a man rummage through a pile of garbage that rests against an overflowing dumpster in back of an Italian restaurant.  The three have dirty-blond dreadlocks and are barefoot; lesions run across the parents’ cheeks but the child’s face is pristine. A pizza box moves, the tail of a rat flicks under its lid. The man doesn’t appear to notice and stares at the ground with a distracted expression. Pierce shakes his head and keeps driving toward his destination. 

Fort Zachary Taylor had recently seen more action than it ever did during a war. A few days earlier, Francesca Donovan, a junior at Miami University and the daughter of one of the city’s leading investment bankers, was found floating facedown in the moat around the fort. In the hours after the discovery the scene had been choked with police and reporters, with morbid onlookers raising their phones to snap a post for Facebook or Instagram. One even got there early enough to see the body, and, like a dutiful contemporary American, promptly put it on the Internet, where of course it went viral. Shortly afterward, a letter from the Donovan family attorney arrived, threatening a lawsuit against her sorority – and the school itself – for negligence in keeping participants at an official school function “reasonably safe” from harm. Attorneys passed the letter to their insurer, who in turn assigned Pierce to fly to Key West and investigate.

Before he left his office in Jacksonville, Pierce had looked up the memorial site for Francesca. The pictures traced a kid who had pieces of a nice life. A lush home on the water in the earlier photos. Private school. Basketball and piano. Travel teams and a lot of attention for a 6’1” forward who averaged 27 points a game – and could also place with her Schubert in regional piano competitions. A Mercedes on her sixteenth birthday. A mother whose smiles looked increasingly forced as she aged. A father who was largely absent after the divorce. Francesca had been a striking brunette, a free spirit who sometimes wore sparkling blue contacts over her brown eyes.          

The investigator read her profile on the team’s website. Her status showed a noticeable decline since her sophomore year. A link had shown a YouTube video of an interview with Francesca that now had 129,372 views, a lot for a backup player on a mediocre team. Pierce guessed ninety-nine percent of them came in the last few days. Francesca came across as witty, downplaying a 79-51 loss to Virginia with an endearing laugh. 

Now it’s quiet, with only a handful of people wandering about, taking much less interesting pictures. The dirt path Pierce walks leads to a breakwater composed of hundreds of boulders placed along the Gulf shore.  Occasionally a heron cries in the distance. 

The insurance investigator photographs the site carefully. He walks around it in every direction, closely checking the surface of the dirt road. Not surprisingly, after so many others had gone through the same exercise, Pierce finds nothing. He clambers onto the rock wall and begins examining the spaces between boulders, potential hiding places filled at high tide with sand, shells and assorted driftwood. Stymied, he walks to the fort and looks over every inch of ground as he steps off the perimeter, staring at the water and imagining the beautiful, promising college kid floating there. 

Using the bridge, he enters the fort itself, a brick structure finished in 1866.  Once much taller, it was reduced to a one-story structure in 1889. He walks past a bored-looking park ranger with a scraggly beard and a Union uniform that seems stretched to the limit, and moves onto the spotty grass of the parade ground then to the interior of the fort, making his way through the enlisted men’s quarters and the mess before he gets to the officer’s area.

Light arrives through ancient cannon openings in the thick brick walls. The massive Columbiad is black, silent and impressive. Plaster coating the interior is chipped and completely worn away in places. Rust flakes from old turrets are scattered on the floor by the remains of iron cannon supports. Dusty red bricks lie in the corners of the room.

“You won’t find anything.” Pierce jumps at the sound of the voice. He looks up and sees the homeless man who had been milling about earlier. The man is wearing a brunette wig. His teeth are horrible, gapped and discolored. “I don’t know why people feel the need to pry into sorrow.”  Pale and sickly thin, the man’s voice sounds broken, an oboe with a faulty reed.

“You’re probably right,” Pierce replies, straightening up and looking at him, “but my boss wouldn’t like it if I didn’t check around a bit.” He finds himself trying not to stare at the wig, then finding himself staring at the lesions, so he goes back to staring at the wig, finding it less problematic as an alternate focus. 

“Oh, you’re one of those,” the homeless man says, viewing the investigator with disapproval.

A second passes before Pierce grasps what he means. “Oh, no,” the investigator responds. “I’m not with any tabloid.  I’m with the insurance company.  Do you know anything about this, you know, the girl dying?”

“I know something – I think.  It’s all very confusing.”

Pierce prepares to mentally kick himself in advance for asking a stupid question. “Confusing?”

“Well, I was there. And then I wasn’t.”

The investigator delivers the mental kick. “OK. Well, I have to work now.”

“Whatever,” the man says, abruptly disinterested in tone. “You should let the dead lie in peace.” He moves away but keeps staring at Pierce as he goes.

Pierce shakes his head then resumes his search, spending the next hour fruitlessly going over the grounds again before giving up and walking back to his rented Civic. He turns the car on and, sitting in the cool air, he pulls up a message on his phone from Ron Torborg, once a classmate at North Florida, now a deputy with the St. Augustine Beach Police Department. Torborg recommended Pierce contact John Jimenez with the Key West Police Department as a possible aid. Pierce leaves a message for Jimenez then kills an hour writing an initial report on his laptop before his phone buzzes with the return call. 

After they exchange introductions, Jimenez says “Ronnie told me you may be calling.”

“Yeah, I appreciate you calling me back. This thing is getting lawyered-up pretty quickly, and we need any help we can get.”

“Well, not a lot to give at this point. The autopsy is not back yet. he family attorney is involved on that. Her sorority sisters all swear they hadn’t seen her for at least four hours before her estimated time of death, which was around 3 AM, give or take. No indication of anyone else with her at the scene. Apparently she wandered off by herself. Could be a simple slip and fall. Hit her head and fell in the water. All possibilities are being checked.”

“Say it wasn’t a slip. Any suspects?”

“You know we can’t talk about that kind of thing.”

“I realize that. But there’s an awful lot of money riding on this and we’d like to work with the police in every way possible.”

“Actually, at this point we seem to be OK,” Jimenez says ironically.

“Can you give me anything to go on?” Pierce pleads.

“OK, no B.S., and of course, off the record, we are looking at Ricky Velasquez. He’s a local dealer, small time. She was apparently dating him.”

 “Why is he a suspect?”

 “A potential suspect,” Jimenez corrects. “And I can’t really say, other than circumstances dictate we look at him.”

 “Can I get any info on her sorority sisters?”

 Jimenez gives the names of the girls. “Most of them have stayed here to party, in spite of the death. They’re still at the Sheraton on Roosevelt. I guess they couldn’t have been too close. Kind of messed up.”

 After the call, Pierce looks up the girls online and quickly gets pictures of all three. At 5 PM, he checks into the Sheraton and gets a decent third-floor room with a balcony that looks down at the tiki bar by the pool. He opens the sliding glass door and walks out into the warm evening air, then sits down by the glass table and starts watching the swarm of kids hanging at the bar. A reggae band plays “Buffalo Soldier” and then launches into some pop covers. Around seven-thirty, he sees the girls arrive.

 The investigator walks down to the bar and tries to stand inconspicuously a few feet away from the girls. At thirty years old and wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt, he doesn’t fit the crowd but no one seems to pay attention to him. He orders a Sam Adams then watches the Panthers-Canadiens game on the bar TV, gradually moving closer and surreptitiously listening carefully to the kids wearing the UM T-shirts. 

Jennifer Winston, a voluptuous brunette with arresting green eyes, sips a Mai Tai from a plastic cup. “I never figured this Spring Break would have gotten so much better, after the way it started.”

“What time are those boys from KU getting here?” Elena Rodiguez asks.

 “Should be around 8,” answers Ashley Canfield, a well-tanned blonde in an orange T-shirt. “But whatever. I’ll always remember this as a horrible Spring Break.”

“You’re not glad you stayed?” Rodriguez asks, looking up from her strawberry daiquiri.

“I still don’t know if it was right thing to do,” Canfield answers.

“Well, we burned a day going back to Miami for the funeral,” says Elena.

”’Burned a day.’ Nice way to put it,” Canfield says sourly.

“Don’t act like you were her best friend. Everyone knows you two had issues with each other.”

“Well, you should have said something about that scumbag boyfriend. You knew what Ricky was like. You dated him.” 

“Two dates, OK? Two dates. And I stopped when I found out how he could be.”

“If I had dated someone who hit me, I’d be sure to tell you.”

“It was one hit. He was drunk when it happened.” She pauses. “He didn’t hurt me.”

“Sure, he’s a great guy. All men hit girls on the second date,” Canfield responds, rolling her eyes. “Did you at least tell her about his side business?”

“You do know she was into it too, right?”

“Yeah, thanks to him.”

“Come on. She was never an angel.”

“No, she wasn’t. But she sure wasn’t like she became. I found needles she hid up high on bookshelves. I’d leave them alone, but it always freaked me out that she was doing it and playing ball at the same time. Crazy.”

“And we probably should all shut the hell up now,” Jennifer says, interrupting her friends as she looks around carefully. They abruptly start talking again about the overdue boys from KU. Pierce finishes his beer then gets the tab from a beleaguered bartender who drops the bill and returns to his blender. The investigator leaves a ten on the bar and returns to his room.

After fifteen minutes on the Internet, Pierce finds “OMG Ricky is amazing” along with a photo of a thin kid with a big smile and dark, menacing eyes. A few more minutes and Pierce has an address. He drives to a rundown street by the Naval Base and parks behind a late model Infiniti. 


Ricky’s supposed residence is a dilapidated two-story wooden house. Occasionally some Spring Breakers pass, laughing raucously, but Pierce sees no one enter or leave so he departs for his hotel at 10 PM.

In the morning, Pierce drives his rental through the quiet streets, passing empty bottles and assorted trash from the prior night’s partying and goes to 7:30 Mass at Mary Star of the Sea. The cadence of the prayers comforts him, bringing back the memory of sitting between his Irish father and Jamaican mother at church when he was a kid. When he gets back in the car, his phone shows Jimenez called and also texted him to come to the station right away.

Pierce drives to the police headquarters and parks the Civic by the main entrance. He walks in and asks the officer on duty for Jimenez. When Jimenez comes out, he seems tired and aggravated. He’s tall, maybe 6’3”, and in his early 30s, with thinning hair and a thickening stomach. He doesn’t look like the voice on the phone. “Kevin Pierce?”

“Yes. Your message said to come down?”

“Yeah, thanks.” He gives a perfunctory handshake. “Come back with me,” he says, and Pierce follows him back to a worn, gray metal desk dominated by a gold-framed photo of a blonde with two little girls.

“Were you parked around the Naval Base last night?”

“Yeah, I was. Why?”

“Parked by Ricky Velazquez’ house?”

“Right. Why do you ask?”

“Let me ask the freaking questions, all right? Ricky Velazquez was a lead we were looking at, and I thought you’d have enough sense not to interfere.”

“I didn’t interfere. I didn’t see anything at all, so I left after about an hour of sitting. I actually never even got out of my car.”

Jimenez pauses and seems to catch himself. “Did you see anything at all?”

“No, just some people passing by, but no one came or went from the house.”

“We had him under light surveillance, which is how we found you were watching him. We definitely would have liked to have talked to him some more.”

“Well, why don’t you?”

“Because he’s dead.”


“His throat was cut. Almost decapitated. We were going to ask him some questions, but when we got there, we saw his body on the sofa through the window.”

“Damn. Any suspects?”

“Well, he was a drug dealer, so no shortage of enemies. But the only one – other than you – who showed up was Francesca Donovan.”

“Who?” Pierce asks, surprised.

“Yeah, exactly. Our camera has footage of someone about her height – which is pretty damn unusual for a girl – and looking a hell of a lot like her walking out of his place shortly after you departed.”

“Well, it obviously wasn’t her. Any idea who it could have been?”

“You can take the ‘obviously’ out of your sentence. She walked right past the surveillance camera. It wasn’t totally clear but it even kind of looked like her close up. I know it sounds crazy, but I actually called the morgue to make sure her body was still there. Which it was.”

“How do I fit in?”

Jimenez sighs. “I guess you don’t. We were just checking if you saw anything.” He looks around his desk for a second. “Right, I left my cards up here,” he says, standing and taking a step toward the high window ledge over his desk. “One good thing about being a little on the tall side,” he says, as he takes a card from a box on the ledge and gives it to Pierce. “Let me know if you find anything.”

“Will do,” Pierce says, suddenly struck by what Jimenez said about his height. He walks out to the Civic and drives to the fort. A scattering of tourists stand along the top of the walls. Pierce jogs through the gate and into the interior.

No one else is in the first room Pierce enters.  He walks around it, carefully looking at the top part of the room, then moves on to the next room, following dim passageways as he makes his way through the fort.

Pierce strides past a gun emplacement – and stops short. In the corner, wearing the same brunette wig, the homeless man sits on a stool. He stares down at the dirt floor as though he hadn’t noticed the investigator’s arrival. His slow, deep breathing fills the room. Gradually, he raises his gaze. Pierce is stunned to see the homeless man is wearing blue sparkled contacts, with blue eye shadow. “Whoa,” Pierce says, “you’re going way too far.”

“Do you think?” the homeless man asks, except the voice is purely feminine now, a pitch-perfect imitation of Francesca.  

“Why are you…” Pierce stammers, trying to get his footing. “A girl died here. This isn’t right.”

The homeless man sighs. “You’re not getting it.” He stands and gives a brief smile with perfect teeth.   

Pierce could swear the man is at least three inches taller than before. There are no lesions anymore. The investigator shudders and unconsciously reaches into his pocket and finds the Kel-Tec .32 he keeps there as a precaution for when investigations go wrong. “Look, I don’t want any problems. I’m just doing my job then I’ll be out of here. Please stay over there and I’ll be gone in a second.”

Near the cannon port is a ledge Pierce can barely reach. He looks around and locates a wooden stool. Keeping an eye on the homeless man, he pulls the stool toward the ledge.

“What are you doing?” the man asks.

“Just doing my job,” Pierce answers warily.

“Don’t look up there,” he says, still in a woman’s voice.

“I’ll be gone in a second,” Pierce says.

“But it’s that second that matters. Please don’t look.”

The homeless man begins to move toward Pierce. The gun comes out and the man stops moving forward. “No need for that. No need for that,” he says.

“What’s on the ledge?” Pierce asks.

“Don’t look. Please just don’t look,” the man says, his voice dripping desperation.

“All right, calm down,” Pierce says. “Just go on your way, OK?”

The homeless man takes a step backward. Keeping an eye on him, Pierce steps onto the stool and glances at the ledge. A syringe rests in the sunlight.

The man makes a small cry. “I let everyone down,” he says in the woman’s voice. “I should have known. He should have known.”

“Who should have known? Have known what?”  Pierce asks.

“There was no point in any of it. No one was any good. Nothing was any good. It was all a letdown, a wasted trip. But I didn’t mean to go that far. I just wanted to touch the edge, but not go over.” He stares at the ground. “But Ricky knows now. That son of a bitch knows.” He stumbles out the door. 

Pierce steps back down and puts his gun away. Even the air seems unnatural after the homeless man leaves. The investigator takes out his cellphone and calls Jimenez. When the police get there he carefully omits any mention of the homeless man. After being questioned, he heads to the airport, drops off the rental car and gets the first flight back to Miami. He stares blankly through the plane window as the sun disappears and the night begins with a purplish introduction to black. Pierce spends the leg to Jacksonville successfully convincing himself he was mistaken about what he saw and winds up never mentioning the incident to his wife when he gets home.

A few days later, when he receives the final police report that rules the death an accidental overdose, Pierce leaves the office early and goes home to his apartment. He pulls up Francesca’s memorial website, pours some Patron, and slips away to random images. The forward in mid-air blocking a shot. The pianist in a black dress sitting pensively before the keys, fingers poised to start. The sorority girl holding a beer and laughing with friends. The sad-faced child standing on the beach. 

But in the end, Pierce’s thoughts return to a homeless family wandering somewhere in Key West, and he wonders what they’re doing at that moment, and how the four of them will turn out.