Dr. Angela Johnson is an author and literacy advocate. She specializes in mystery and suspense stories. Her work has been published in several online and print magazines. Visit her online at angelajohnsonbooks.com or follow her on Instagram at: @angelajohnson8413.
The Last Shot
The dinner on Friday evening was as good as Cameron had imagined although the way it came about was not what he’d had in mind. He’d heard his aunt making party plans and expected many of his relatives to be there. But the arguments that sometimes plagued families had started a few weeks before. From what Cameron could overhear some of his cousins were feuding with other family members about the sale of the land out near Grand Isle.
Some of the family did not even know that a distant cousin owned a small fishing cabin and a few acres of land near the nature spot that many New Orleans locals liked to go to for the outdoor activities of fishing and birdwatching. New Orleans was below sea-level and areas such as Grand Isle served as the last barrier island for the city. This weekend Cameron, Alma, and Gerard had come to celebrate his elderly uncle Samuel’s birthday with him.
Rather than the big party Cameron had heard his aunt planning, it was just the four of them for the dinner. Cameron’s aunt Alma had prepared Samuel’s favorite jambalaya and surprised him with it at dinner. Cameron had enjoyed the homemade food and had helped himself to another small piece of cake after dinner. But he was careful to check his blood sugar level afterwards, just in case he needed to adjust the setting on his new insulin pump.
Due to coastal erosion and ineffective policies, the barrier was disappearing at a staggering rate, but on the days when 10-year-old piano prodigy Cameron would go there to visit his uncle Samuel with his guardian Gerard, he could not tell. The area was beautiful to him. It was a town on a narrow barrier island with clean beaches, a nature preserve of butterflies and plants local to the area, and many unusual birds. He only thought about how much fun it was to go outside with his camera and take photographs. Gerard was more interested in the fishing. It was one of his favorite past times on vacations.
Gerard usually invited Cameron along and he would spend the day in the boat wondering what the purpose of this activity was. Cameron had awakened early that Saturday morning and dressed in casual clothes that he hoped would be comfortable and warm for a day on the water. The cabin was surrounded by green shrubs and trees. A few hundred yards away the path opened widened and then you could access the beach or pier.
“Cameron, you know, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” Gerard Wright said with his clear British accent. Gerard Wright was the music director for the New Orleans Symphony and had been close friends with Cameron’s mother. When she’d gone, Gerard had taken Cameron in. The music had been a surprise. It was only by chance that Gerard had discovered that Cameron was a pianist of astonishing talent who had not even had proper training until three years ago.
At first Cameron was not sure if he should go fishing anyway. He did not want to seem like he didn’t like it. “But I want to go with you.” He was surprised when Gerard closed his tackle box and began to laugh.
“Cameron, you are being very polite. But let’s be honest. You hate going fishing with me.”
“I don’t hate it, Gerry.” Cameron was wearing blue jeans and a red t-shirt. He had vibrant green eyes and dark curly hair. Gerard had just reminded him to put on a long sleeve sweater. The area was beautiful but there were all types of insects including mosquitoes that always seemed attracted to Cameron. The easiest way to avoid being bitten was to wear protective clothing.
“Name something you like about it.” He smiled.
Cameron could not think of anything he liked. Gerard never let him bait his own hook, not that he wanted to touch the live bait anyway. He would have liked being on the water sailing, but for fishing they were anchored and still. Probably the worst thing for Cameron was that you could not talk. He always felt like talking when the three of them would go out to fish, but the idea was quickly put down when Sam said that the noise would drive the fish away. So, you sat there in silence and waited for an unsuspecting fish to come along. No, there wasn’t anything he liked about it. “I’m sorry Gerry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. If you go back to my room and look in my suitcase, you’ll find the digital camera I gave you for Christmas. Why don’t you go outside and take some pictures?”
“You really don’t mind?” He could not keep the smile off his face.
Gerard shook his head and Cameron rushed back down the hallway of the house. He spotted Gerard’s dark brown leather overnight bag in the corner chair and immediately unzipped the top. The shiny black camera lay on top. Cameron took it out and admired the expensive device for a moment. He had already learned how to adjust the settings and use all the features. While it was true that his smartphone would take quality photos and video, he liked the versatility of the new camera. He might be able to catch a butterfly in flight.
“Stay where we can see you from the boat. We never go out too far. Maybe take your phone with you too. I am going to take mine.” Gerard reached into the pocket of his black jeans and took out the thin phone. Cameron wondered how he managed to never get a scratch on it when he did not put it in a case.
“And why are you taking a phone?” Samuel Leblanc came into the kitchen from his bedroom on the other side of the room. “You know I don’t like talking on my boat when I’m fishing. Scares the fish away.” The older man said with an earnest expression before beginning to laugh. He was tall and slender with curly gray hair.
“Because Cameron isn’t coming with us this morning. He is going to do a photo story about what he sees today and show it to us this evening.” Gerard said in a questioning tone.
“That sounds like a great idea Gerry!” Cameron said and hurried toward the door.
“Wait just a minute.” Gerard called behind him. “Did you check your blood sugar?”
Cameron looked at the kitchen table where his testing kit sat squarely in the middle. Most of the time the family kept it in plain sight so that Cameron would not forget and if necessary, like this morning, someone could remind him. “I’ll check it now.” Cameron went to the sink and washed his hands before starting the finger stick process. He had learned to do it himself even though he hated needles. Using the side of his finger instead of the ball was less painful and didn’t get in the way of playing the piano.
Gerard and Samuel talked about the fishing trip and listened to the weather report on the internet while Cameron inserted the strip into the meter. He was careful to not show any sign in his face. “Normal range.” He lied. He was not going to miss the first chance he had to go take photos during one the trips here. It was like a sign that he was growing up. And getting better.
Cameron did not let himself think much about how things used to be now. There was no point. He was safe here and didn’t have to be afraid anymore. His father was dead. There was no one who was going to hurt him anymore. Gerry and his aunt Alma had assured him of that. Alma lived with them and took care of him when Gerry was working with the orchestra. Everything was better now, and that was what he tried to focus on.
The fear only crossed his mind in a flash sometimes. He felt like he was being watched. When he looked around though, no one was watching. His great-uncle was arranging his tan tackle box and Gerard was typing into his phone. Cameron got his camera and headed towards the door.
“Enjoy yourself. Remember what I said.” Gerard nodded as he passed him.
“I’ll be careful.” Cameron said and left the house. As he pulled the front door shut, he felt a cool breeze blow across his face. He looked towards the beach and saw a woman jogging towards him from the beach. He waved.
“And where are you off to? I thought you were going fishing with Gerard.” Alma took her white earbuds out of ears.
“Gerry said I didn’t have to go. I can go out on my own.” He held out the digital camera.
His aunt smiled. “Get some good pictures,” she said with her hand on the doorknob. “Don’t go too far.”
“I won’t.” Cameron said and began walking towards the beach. The air was scented with the faint smell of the wildflowers at the edge of the woods and the water from the beautiful blue Gulf of Mexico.
It was not long before he had settled on the format his photo story would take. He would record the morning in order and make a kind of diary of what he saw there. It might actually be fun to show the photos to Gerry and Alma that night. He started with the flowers near the cabin and then headed towards the wooded area, taking two more photos on the way. He set the lens to zoom in close once he saw a small scissor-tailed bird perched on a low tree branch and then smiled when he checked the beautiful high-resolution photo.
He looked out towards the water when an engine started. He saw Gerard and his Uncle Samuel in the boat moving out from the shore. He and Gerard waved to each other before he went a little further into the woods. The area was quiet this early in the morning and it was easy for him to hear when the motor stopped. Just as he had expected, the boat was well within sight. He could imagine the quiet of the boat and for a moment wished that he had gone with them.
He didn’t know what the sound was at first. He didn’t want to go any further into the woods than the first sparse row of trees, but the rhythmic sound seemed to be deeper inside. Cameron took one more picture of a bird before walking towards the sound. There should not be anyone there but the family, Cameron thought.
He was surprised to see a man with a shovel digging deep in the woods. It looked like a large hole. Cameron held his camera up to his eye and took a photo of the man. He was very tall from what Cameron could tell and had on a black jacket. He kept his head down so Cameron’s photo did not capture his face, but he had blonde hair. He looked at the display and his heart skipped a beat. He could hardly breathe when he noticed that there was something on the ground near the man who was digging. Cameron could not see what was covered up in black plastic, but he could clearly see that there was a hand sticking out.
He felt sick and was trembling when he lowered the camera. He looked back at the man while being careful to conceal himself behind a tree. It suddenly felt like he was miles away from safety instead of only a few yards from shore where he could call to Gerry. He took a step towards the beach and a twig snapped under his shoe. He quickly aligned himself with the tree again and did not move. He could not be sure whether the man had heard the sound. All he knew was that the sound of shovel against earth had stopped.
Cameron waited for a few moments, unsure whether to run and scream or stay hidden. He felt lightheaded with fear, but then the digging sound commenced again. He seized the opportunity to run and dropped his camera after only a few feet. He grabbed it and continued down the path towards the house without bothering to look behind him.
Cameron burst in the front door of the house with such speed that his aunt jumped up from the kitchen table. “Cameron, what’s wrong?”
“Outside…by the woods…” He gasped. His aunt’s face filled with concern as she came over to him and put her hands on his shoulders.
“Cameron, calm down. Take a deep breath. Did something chase you?”
“No, I saw a man. He was burying something…”
“Sweetheart it was probably the groundskeeper. You know Uncle Samuel can’t take care of this place by himself and…” Her voice was calm.
“But I saw what he was burying. I saw a hand.”
“Oh, Cameron. Really?” She shook her head.
“Yes, I did see it.” Cameron said and took his phone from his pocket. He called Gerard and asked him to come back. He was not surprised when his guardian came back immediately and met him on the beach. His uncle waited in the boat. Cameron knew that Gerard might not believe everything he said. After all, Cameron had been in therapy for years and still saw a psychiatrist every week. But Gerard always listened.
As soon as Gerard tied the boat to the dock he asked where he had been when he saw the man. Alma did not dispute his claim anymore and simply walked with them in silence the few yards to the tree where Cameron had been standing. The area was alive with the sound of birds chirping and the water rustling, but there was no digging sound. No man was there either. In the few minutes since he had run back to the house, it looked like no one had been there at all. To his amazement, the ground where Cameron saw the man digging didn’t look raised. Cameron felt a tight knot in his stomach and avoided Gerard’s eyes.
“There’s something here. Is this where you saw him?” Alma asked from the other side of the makeshift path. She was a few yards away from where Cameron thought he had seen the man. The patch of freshly turned earth was small, too small to be the place where a body was buried.
“Yeah…I guess so…” Cameron frowned as he looked up at her.
“You guess, or you know?” Gerard asked.
“I…I’m not sure.” Cameron blinked.
“Okay, not sure is an honest answer.” Gerard said. “I know you think you saw something. Let me see the photo.”
Cameron obliged and held out the digital camera to his guardian. “I dropped it.” He said softly when Gerard paused to look at the scratch on the camera. Gerard advanced the camera to the last photo Cameron took. He moved closer to Cameron so they could view the screen together.
“Let me zoom in on this part.” Gerard squinted at the picture of a man with a shovel digging in the sand. “I see the black plastic on the ground.” He said. “I’m sorry but I don’t anything else.” He handed the camera back to the child.
“Maybe you are still a little sleepy. You were up really late last night, in the kitchen.” Alma came over and put an arm around Cameron’s shoulder.
“I did see a man…and he was burying someone. I saw a hand!” He pulled away from her, angry that his secret excursion to get more dessert had been revealed.
“Cameron…” Gerard raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry.” Cameron apologized to them.
“Let’s not get all upset. Look, I know you think you saw something happen here. But there is no sign of it now.” Gerard looked out at the water. “Maybe it was something else.”
“Maybe.” Cameron had begun to doubt it too. There was certainly no grave in the spot where he had seen the man.
“Is there something I can help you with?” A voice called out to them from further down the path. A tall man with dark blonde hair strode towards them quickly.
Cameron’s stomach tightened when he saw the man he had captured on camera. He backed up until he was standing behind Gerard.
“Good morning, we are Mr. Leblanc’s guests. I’m Alma and this is Gerard,” She gestured towards where Cameron was standing. “And that’s Cameron.” Alma smiled and the man nodded.
“I’m Pete.” He said.
“Have you been working up here this morning?”
“I’m always working Ma’am. Is something wrong?”
“Just…” Alma glanced at Cameron. “on our walk we noticed this spot here. Looks like someone was digging…” she said casually.
“Oh, well I can’t do anything about it Ma’am. It’s tragic that people break the law like that.”
“What do you mean?” Gerard asked.
“This whole area is restricted for hunting. But still sometimes people will come out and shoot, especially if they think no one is around. I found a couple of dead birds this morning. I buried them.” His eyes drifted away from Gerard’s face and settled on Cameron. “I suppose I should let the park ranger know.” He stared at the camera that Cameron held.
“Yes, I guess you should.” Gerard said and regained Pete’s attention. “We won’t keep you from your work then.” He nodded and after a moment’s pause, Pete walked away. They walked along in silence until a few minutes later they heard the sound of a truck engine start and then the sound dissipate as Pete drove away.
Cameron was stunned. “Is that all you are going to ask him? It was a big hole and…” he began before he started to feel dizzy. He dropped the camera. The next thing he noticed was how blue the sky was as he tried to open his eyes wider. He could hear a woman’s voice from a distance.
“He’s still awake. See, he’s all right.” Alma smoothed Cameron’s hair. He was supported in her arms where they both sat on the ground. Gerard ran towards them from the cabin.
“Cameron, Cameron here take this.” Gerard said and gently placed a small tube of instant glucose gel in his hand and then helped him place it at his lips. “Go ahead.”
Cameron swallowed the cherry flavored gel.
“You’ll feel better in a minute.” Alma said.
You are going to be just fine.” Gerard reassured him. “Let’s get you back inside.”
The three of them walked back towards the cabin. Samuel called to them from the pier where he was securing the boat and waited for him to come over to them.
“I feel better now Gerry. You can go fishing.”
“No, I don’t really want…” Gerard leaned down, so they were at eye level.
“Please Gerry,” Cameron whispered as his uncle approached. “I don’t want to spoil your day.”
“You’re not spoiling anything.” He shook his head.
“But you said we would stop letting it get in the way and try to have more fun.” Cameron repeated the words Gerard had used when they had talked with his endocrinologist about his diabetes a few weeks before.
Gerard laughed. “I was actually talking about you having fun, but okay. You’re right. I did say that.” Gerard patted his head gently. “Do you want to go out with us this time?”
Cameron hesitated before he smiled. Alma cleared her throat. “Why don’t we all go?”
“Are you all right child?” Samuel asked as soon as he was within range.
“I’m okay.” He smiled. “We were all going to go out on the boat with you.”
“If you don’t mind a little talking while I am sketching.” Alma laughed. “Cameron is going to be my model today.” She opened the cabin door. “While you pack the food, I will get my art supplies.” She said to Gerard.
“Okay.” He said. “Cameron, I will let you help me choose some balanced nutritious snacks.” He grinned knowing the child’s fondness for sweets.
Before dinner that evening when they had returned from a day on the water, Gerard went in search of Cameron’s digital camera. While they were on the boat, Cameron had used his phone to record video and photos. He thought he must have dropped the camera somewhere along the wooded path. Gerard looked all around the area where they had walked but did not find it. The area was silent as the sun began to set. He gave up and started walking back towards the cabin when he heard the sound of a truck engine start and then grow fainter as the vehicle moved further away.