ST. LUCIA, EASTERN CARIBBEAN
March 29, 2007
The blood was a problem.
I knew it as soon as I felt it spit across my face. It streamed from his hairline and ran along his jaw until it dribbled onto the granite bluff, first in sporadic red blots, like the leading raindrops of a coming storm, and then in a continuous stream, as though a spigot had been plugged into the spot on his head where I had struck him and had opened wide. It was an error in judgment and strategy, which was a shame because up to now I had been perfect.
A moment earlier, the soft soles of my shoes had squished through the mud on the final turn of my arduous hike up the Piton. My system was rich with adrenaline, which made my journey nearly effortless. The endorphins would serve me well. I would need their analgesic and energy-producing powers to get back down the mountain as quickly as I’d made it up. To kill someone required perfection, timing, and luck. I hoped all three were with me this evening.
He came into view. As he stared out over the bluff, the setting sun cast his shadow toward me like a black panther painted over the ground. He stood next to the blanket he had laid over the granite, a bottle of champagne and two flutes waiting. In the backdrop the sun was approaching the horizon, casting its glow across the calm Caribbean waters and interrupted only by a sailboat whose bright spinnaker was bloated with the evening breeze.
It was one hundred feet to the water. A straight drop, and shallow at the base of the mountain. No way for the sea to substantially break his fall. I’d confirmed this the day before. I had put much thought into this evening. Besides the depth of the water, I calculated the time it would take for me to reach the bluff and return to my cottage. I plotted my route back through the resort. I factored in the unexpected, a necessity to any proper strategy. And, most important, I considered the amount of time I would spend with him on the bluff. It wouldn’t be long.
From my spot in the foliage, I took a few silent steps forward until he was accessible, close enough to touch. But physical touch would be limited this evening. Physical touch would leave clues and fibers and forensics. My weapon allowed me to stay at a safe distance. I lifted it, pausing slightly at the peak of the arc when my hand was raised high above my head, then brought it down in a sharp rap against his skull. The connection was solid. A direct strike that he didn’t anticipate and likely never felt. Besides a quick synapse that radiated through the neurons of his central nervous system, he likely felt nothing at all. No pain, no suffering. Unless, of course, he was still conscious when he went over the edge. I try not to dwell on that.
I knew immediately that I had been too aggressive with my assault. My goal was to stun him and render him incapable of defending himself. Instead, my strike nearly killed him. He reflexively reached for the back of his head and fell to his knees I waited and watched, unsure how things would progress. He seemed to recognize the blood as it poured onto the granite, and gained enough wherewithal to stagger back to his feet. Before he could turn around, my shoe met the back of his pants and he was gone. I didn’t hear him land, never heard a splash. I dared not venture to the edge of the bluff for fear that someone had spotted his body tumbling toward the ocean, like a skydiver whose chute had failed, and would subsequently look to the source of the fall and see me peering over the ledge.
I assessed the bluff now and worked to figure out the best way to fix my blunder. The blood would tell a different story than I had hoped to draw tonight. It took only a fraction of a second to make my decision. The carnage on the bluff was impossible to hide. The splatter across my face, however, needed to be addressed. On closer inspection, the spray of blood streaked down my chest and onto my left hand. Another collection of red, I noticed, had speckled my weapon. It was an unfortunate error—unforced and brought on entirely by my eagerness. There was no way to solve all of these problems. I chose the most pressing—the blood that was covering me—and settled on a solution. I turned from the setting sun and the blood-covered bluff and ran down the Piton, stomping over dirt and through brush and down the man-made staircase of boulders and bamboo on a beeline to the cottage.
March 29, 2007
Julian Crist made the hike up Gros Piton in St. Lucia’s south-western point in just under thirty minutes. Summiting the Piton was a popular tourist excursion, and he and his group had made the trek the day before. This evening, though, Julian ascended only to the Soufriere Bluff, a spot he had found yesterday and determined to be a perfect place to watch the sunset. A simple hike, it required little more than following the trail that spun its way around the base of the mountain. The most strenuous part of the journey was a steep climb up a series of fifty steps built into the side of the cliff by native St. Lucians who used boulders and bamboo to create a navigable staircase across the steep lower gorge.
Once a hiker was past the only spirited challenge on the way up to Soufriere Bluff, the rest of the climb was a tranquil waltz along a dirt path that offered occasional glimpses of the Caribbean Sea and the Jalousie Plantation. It was a picturesque hike, but when he made it to the clearing, Julian knew he’d picked a flawless location for what he had planned. He pulled his backpack off his shoulders and laid the blanket across the smooth granite of the bluff. Below him was a pristine view of the Pitons Bay, where, in about forty minutes, the sun would descend from the cloudless blue sky and sink into the horizon.
He checked his watch. To make up for his foolishness, the setting needed to be perfect before she arrived. He had nearly ruined everything earlier today. He’d been wrong to accuse her, especially when it was he who was hiding things. But he’d make it up to her tonight. He pulled two champagne flutes from his bag and popped the top on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the cork rocketing into the air in a high arc until it fell out of sight over the edge of the bluff. His stomach dropped as he watched the cork’s flight. For the twentieth time since starting up Gros Piton, Julian checked his pocket, rubbing his fingers over the edges to make sure he hadn’t lost it.
With everything prepared, Julian stood to the side of the blanket as he looked out at the falling sun. A sailboat, with its colourful sail full of wind, angled across Pitons Bay. Down to his right, he could see Sugar Beach and the small group gathering to watch the sunset. If there were a more beautiful place on earth, he’d never seen it.
He heard a twig snap behind him, and wondered briefly how she had reached the bluff without him sensing her approach. Before this thought could trigger his muscles to react, a jolt coursed through his body. It started in his head, a quick shock that stalled time and congested his movements, like swimming through oil.
Only the trickle of blood through his hair and over his ear caused his mind to catch up with the present. He touched the spot on his head where the shock wave had originated, managing to get his hands back out in front of himself as he fell forward onto his knees. On all fours, he watched as blood fell onto the granite as he leaned forward, like an artist dribbling paint onto a canvas.
The sun highlighted his right hand, the fingers of which were shiny red prongs that felt as though they belonged to someone else.
He staggered back to his feet and took unsteady steps, two forward and one to the side in an attempt to turn around. A firm jerk—a shoe planted in the small of his back—snapped his neck backward and sent him careening toward the edge of the bluff. He felt his stomach rise again, as if he were rewatching the arc of the champagne cork. A twisted image of the mountain face, lush with green foliage, filled his vision for three full seconds before the ocean came up and grabbed him.
High on Soufriere Bluff, the setting sun highlighted the spilled blood and cast shadows of the champagne bottle and two flutes across the granite. They stretched to their full length, three inanimate objects pulling all the contradictory darkness of their shadows from the brightness of the sun, until an hour later when they faded and melted into the night.
St. Lucia High Court
Nine Months Later
The NBC reporter stood in front of the camera, microphone in hand and the high court of St. Lucia framed behind her. The cameraman counted down, “Three, two, one.” He pointed at her.
“We’ve just received word that the jury is back in the Grace Sebold case. It’s been a long nine months for Julian Crist’s family as they’ve sought justice for their son, who was killed here in St. Lucia back in March. A fourth-year student at New York Medical College, Julian Crist’s body was found on the morning of March thirtieth having washed up on the famed Sugar Beach, where he and classmates had gathered over spring break to celebrate a friend’s wedding. Originally believing it to be an accidental fall from one of St. Lucia’s legendary Twin Pitons, detectives quickly began to suspect foul play. Just two days into the investigation, Crist’s fellow medical student and girlfriend, Grace Sebold, was taken into St. Lucian custody and charged with Julian’s murder. An intense, and sometimes wild, trial followed in St. Lucia’s High Court. Today, Grace Sebold’s fate will be determined by a group of twelve jurors.”
The reporter put her finger to her ear. “The jury, I’m being told, is returning. We’re going to take you inside the courthouse for the verdict.”
The production crew cut to the inside of the courthouse, which was crowded with spectators lining the pews like a busy Sunday church service. Reporters and cameramen from CNN, the BBC, and FOX News crowded along the back wall. The jury members shuffled into their spots, and the chamber buzzed with a silent trepidation that was broken occasionally by the snapping of cameras, their shutters opening and closing as photographers attempted to capture every gesture and facial expression. Through the stillness, a side door rattled open and a constable led Grace Sebold into the courtroom. The press was frenzied as they jockeyed for position to steal the best photo of the enigmatic Grace Sebold, described over the past three months as a combination of a brilliant future physician and ruthless murderer.
The constable led Grace to her counsel, who was seated at a table in front of the judge. The lawyer stood when Grace arrived and whispered into her ear. Grace gave a subtle nod. The magistrate brought the high court to order with three booming raps of his gavel.
“This is St. Lucia’s High Court, Southern District, presiding over the case of St. Lucia versus Grace Sebold.” He looked to the jury. “Foreman, have you come to a unanimous decision in this case?”
“Yes, Your Honor,” the middle-aged man said, holding a thin folder.
The constable took the folder from the foreman and handed it to the judge, who placed it on the surface in front of him. His facial expression gave nothing away as he opened the file and silently read the verdict, then looked out at the crowded room.
“I would ask all who are present this morning to respect the high court by refraining from emotional reactions after I’ve read this verdict. I further ask the press to remain in the media section and to please cross none of the barriers that have been constructed.”
The judge looked down at the verdict, paused briefly before setting his gaze on Grace Sebold.
“Ms. Sebold, please stand.”