Blythe Howard perched on the highest steel beam of the bridge at Cow Bay Gut, some thirty odd feet above the churning water, remembering. This was as good a place as any to kill herself. At fifteen, she was pushed off this exact spot by a local boy, as the strong rip current flowed toward the old dock upstream. She could still recall her startled terror; could still taste the plunging shock of cool river water mingled with colder, salty ocean.
They called her From Away because she wasn’t a native islander, was too chicken to jump off the bridge like the other kids, and therefore didn’t fit in. In the thirty-five years that had passed since that summer, the sensation of being an outsider had never left her.
Only an idiot–or someone From Away–jumped off this bridge when the rip current moved in the opposite direction, toward the sharp rocks of the breakwater and out to sea.
Like it moved now.
She fished her cell phone out of her pocket, stared at it a moment, then flung it into the water. It disappeared beneath the dark swirls. Something else floated by. Seaweed, or maybe a jelly fish.
Her butt had gone numb from sitting on hard steel and Blythe shivered. Maybe she wasn’t ready for death by drowning. Maybe she should find another way. Something warmer. Less smelly and icky.
Defeated and shivering, Blythe climbed off the bridge railings on stiff legs, almost losing her footing and giving herself a fright. She wasn’t as limber as she used to be.
She hustled back to the motorcycle, rubbing her hands to get the circulation going. Hell, it was supposed to be summer, but summers could be cold here, especially at night.
Her gaze swept the dark, rocky shoreline where Winifred ‘Freddie’ Doyle had saved Neila Carey from drowning the summer they had all turned sixteen. She stared at the thick grove of spruce trees that clung to the hill, hiding the cabin where Bradley Johnston smoked his last cigarette and groped his last girl on the night of The Bonfire. A night she hadn’t talked about since, just like she’d promised.
Lights blinked across Cow Bay as she drove north. She hadn’t planned on needing anywhere to sleep tonight since she was supposed to be dead by now. But who was she kidding? Did she really have the guts to kill herself? Why had she come all the way back to this God forsaken island? To be near the one person who just might understand what she had done. Not that she had any intention of telling a soul.
Darcy MacDonald stared at the ceiling and thought about murder. There were lots of ways to kill someone. Poison, a bullet, the well-placed blow of any heavy object.
Her right hip ached, and she had a crick in her neck. She couldn’t shift onto her back or she’d fall off the couch, since Fergus took up most of it. It might be comfortable enough to have sex on, but there wasn’t enough room for two people to lie side by side. She ruffled Fergus’s silky, dark brown hair.
“Hey, wake up.”
When he didn’t make a move, she eased off the sofa, smoothing down her skirt as she glanced around for her panties.
“You can sleep later, Fergus. Right now you have an appointment. Something about a missing person.” Darcy tucked her breasts back in her bra and hooked the front clasp together. “You don’t want a client to catch you with your pants down. Bad for business.”
She scooped her white, cotton blouse off the floor. It was a wrinkled mess. Next time she’d buy polyester, something more suitable for a quickie at the office.
Fergus lay on his stomach, facing away from her; arms bent at the elbows and tucked in at his sides. A dragonfly tattoo adorned the lower half of his back. She could see the tail peeking out from underneath his unbuttoned shirt. There was something missing, but her mind couldn’t quite register what.
Then it hit her. The dragonfly wasn’t moving the way it usually did whenever Fergus slept.
In fact, it wasn’t moving at all. It was perfectly still, with no rise and fall.
Somewhere outside the high-pitched cry of a seagull split the air, twice. A cool gust of air rattled the dusty Venetian blinds and carried the smell of rain through the open window.
Darcy shivered. “Fergus?”
Tugging gently on his left shoulder, she leaned over to look at him. A string of drool hung from his sagging mouth, and his eyes were open, staring at nothing.
She jumped back.
Two sharp knocks hit the door, and a muffled voice, thick with boredom and a Russian accent, said, “Mr. Fergus? Your three o’clock is here.”
She bounded across the room and wrenched the door open.
Vaughn, the receptionist, eyed her up and down with open disapproval. “You want our clients to see you half dressed? You can’t put some clothes on?”
Hauling Vaughn into the room by the arm, Darcy shut the door. Her mouth worked, but her throat was too dry for words to come.
Vaughn’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
She pointed to Fergus. “He’s … there’s something wrong. He’s—”
“Half naked. Is not good, in a place of business—”
“He’s not breathing.” Panic bubbled up, and Darcy lurched for the phone on Fergus’s desk, knocking the handset out of its cradle in one frantic swipe.
“Not breathing? Why not?”
Vaughn’s ridiculous question seemed to come from the other end of a long, dark tunnel, and Darcy couldn’t answer. It took all her concentration to dial 9-1-1.
Everything shifted into slow motion, including the phone ringing in Darcy’s ear. One ring. A long pause. A longer ring, an even longer pause. Oh, shit, hurry up.
Vaughn moved to the couch to examine Fergus more closely. Finally Darcy heard a female voice at the other end of the line.
“Nine one one emergency—”
“My boss, he’s not breathing. I need an ambulance, now. Bloodhound Investigations.” She repeated the address twice.
“I’ll dispatch an ambulance right away, ma’am. Stay on the line, please.”
“He is dead,” Vaughn pronounced sadly. “Poor Mr. Fergus.”
Hayley Carmichael pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket and checked the address again. There was no mistake, this was the place. Which meant the gum cracking, eyebrow-pierced receptionist at the radio station had played a prank on her. That had to be it.
Because Eighteen Cordova Street was not a condo, nor was it on the water. The sign on the gate read Plenty O’ Peace Bed and Breakfast. The laneway twisted through a small copse of trees and stopped at the foot of an elegant, gray house. Mansion was more accurate. A white columned, two-story verandah framed the front door and disappeared around the left side of the building in a tumble of greenery. Several tall pines reached toward the gently sloping roof, partially obscuring a large gabled window.
Hayley couldn’t picture Brody living in such an elegant place. Scarlett O’Hara, maybe, but not Brody Todd.
She’d asked Brody three times to give her his hometown address, but somehow he never had. His vague ways and lack of attention to detail had been endearing initially, but it was getting old.
In the end, the receptionist had given her the information on file for Brody Todd, celebrity jock DJ, with a look that said, ‘Shouldn’t you already know this?’
“Of course he told me, but I forgot,” Hayley told her, hating that she felt compelled to offer an explanation. She didn’t really care what a girl with a piece of metal in her face thought about anything, did she?
That was her problem, Hayley realized. She cared too much about what people thought.
Ever since she’d accepted Brody’s marriage proposal she’d had a mad urge to storm down the street and explain to everyone, including strangers, that Brody made her laugh, you see. He had a really nice apartment near the radio station, about as far away from the hospital district as you could get, so of course she’d said ‘yes’. He had nice teeth and smelled good, too. What more could a girl ask for?
Brody was always on, so she fed off his energy. God knows, it had kept her alive since Christmas. If she gave in to her overwhelming urge to sleep all the time maybe she’d never wake up.
He took her biking, to the movies, and taught her how play Texas Hold ‘Em. He even let her come to work with him, where she listened to the show in the booth reserved for special guests. He lived and breathed baseball, but she didn’t mind, she actually enjoyed the indoor batting cages. She’d impressed him with her enthusiasm at the plate.
“Hey, that’s quite a swing you’ve got there, Babe,” he said. “But you’re trying to kill it. Nice and easy, keep your eye on the ball.”
So she stopped pretending the baseball was someone’s head, and did as he told her, and the ball sailed up and away. Brody’s tawny eyes lit up and he cheered, making her feel like she’d done something truly amazing.
He even helped her pack away her mother’s things, her beautiful clothes that Hayley couldn’t even look at, let alone touch. He picked up a special wardrobe box at a moving place and hung up the skirts, suits and jackets on hangers. The rest he folded away in a trunk. He emptied out her mother’s bathroom cupboard of powder and soap. He put her perfume, cleansers and makeup in a box until Hayley could figure out what to do with it all.
And he promised Hayley she’d never have to worry about a place to stay as long as he was around.
Brody’s apartment was stark and clean, not because he was a neat freak, but because he wasn’t home a lot, and so didn’t have the opportunity to mess things up too much. The walls were white, not by choice but because Brody was too lazy to be bothered painting them, and that contributed to the impression of clear, spartan space. A big screen television and a single leather recliner were the only items of furniture in his living room.
The house Hayley had shared with her mother had been clean too, but it was cluttered with color and family photographs, rocks and shells from summer vacations, old recipes and dishes that spoke of laughter around the dining room table. Her mother was a pack rat, and when she died the clutter that surrounded Hayley most of her life suddenly morphed from a pleasant reminder of happier times into a collection of shadowy daggers that tore into her every time she looked at it, reminding her of what was gone.
At Brody’s place she didn’t have to worry about coming across an object that could make her sink to her knees and sob her heart out. Everything was new and fresh, a clean page to write her future on.
There’s a strange, moaning lump in the back seat of my electric blue Delta 88.
Instead of sinking my teeth into a greasy cheeseburger and sucking on an impossibly thick, extra-large chocolate shake, I was shivering in the middle of West North Street, Normal, Illinois, wrestling with my options.
The Delta sputtered with its door wide open, waiting for a driver, its roomy back end jutting out into the road. In my haste to pull over and escape the confines of the car, convinced I was about to be attacked by a mad man, I hadn’t been fussy about how I’d parked. The October wind prowled through the semi-naked limbs of a large maple tree edging the shoulder, and it tossed small whirlpools of musty, dead leaves around me.
My cell phone, which I’d forgotten to charge again, was buried at the bottom of my imitation leather shoulder bag on the front seat, so calling for help was certainly out. I could run to safety, but this section of West North was deserted, and it was at least a mile to Jimmy John’s Best Burger, where I’d picked up my take out dinner minutes ago.
And I couldn’t stand in the middle of the road, waiting for someone to come along. After nine o’clock, the town of Normal closed its doors and rolled up its sidewalks, its citizens already home, cozied up to their television sets.
I decided to meet my fate alone, since I was pretty sure a crazed attacker would have made his move by now.
I crept back to the car and peeked through the window. The lump was human, and when it moved I jumped back, my pulse pounding in my throat.
“You’ve got the wrong car, go sleep it off somewhere else,” I demanded.
“Ha, ha. Funny joke. But you’re a little early for Halloween, aren’t you?”
The light from the open door lit up the interior, and I leaned forward to get a better look.
The body was hunched in a fetal position, and from the size of the boots, it was male. A puffy, purple slit took up the space where his right eye should have been. His shirtsleeve was missing, and his exposed arm was covered in blood. He was tall, tall enough to fill the entire back seat, even though he was curled up. He wore jeans; one of the back pockets had been ripped off and was hanging by a thread.
Whoever he was, the poor bastard wasn’t a threat to anyone, given his current condition.
“Hey, mister. Can you hear me?”
Another moan. “Harley,” the man mumbled.
I climbed into the driver’s seat on my knees, facing my new passenger. “Harley? Is that your name?”
His first name? His last? Or maybe Harley was the name of the person who’d done this to him? My horror-filled sympathy became fear. This man could die in the back seat of my Oldsmobile if I didn’t do something, fast.
And I’d feel responsible. I feel that way a lot, even about things that aren’t my fault.
I twisted in the seat, groped for the car door and slammed it shut. Then I backed up, shifted into drive and stepped on the gas. The scrape of the exhaust pipe on the curb told me I’d taken the corner too sharply, but I didn’t slow down. I was flying high on an adrenaline rush.
I roared north along Main Street, turned right onto East Emerson, and headed straight toward Franklin Avenue. Two left turns later, I landed in front of the emergency department, surprising two orderlies having a smoke break. Not a very favorable image for the health care industry.
I spilled out of the car. “Help!”
The orderlies threw down their cigarettes and leapt into action. Before I knew it a stretcher appeared and they hauled the body–still moaning, not dead–through the sliding glass doors and into the bosom of medical care.
Callie Shaw’s hypothesis about the short duration of her sister Serenity’s marriage was about to be proven correct, with a vengeance. She pinched herself and blinked, but the two uniformed policemen charging up the aisle were real.
Serenity’s eyes widened in alarm, killing any hope that the policemen could be late wedding guests.
Callie’s other sister Doreen’s fierce, minty whisper reached her ear. “Who are they?”
“You tell me. Don’t you know every cop in town?” Callie whispered back.
Doreen squinted. “I don’t recognize them.”
The minister’s thick, bushy eyebrows knit in confusion as the policemen approached. Uncle Gil scowled with suspicion. Mitch Brooker, the best man, who up to now had seemed rather bored with the whole proceedings, stood at attention. The wedding guests whispered to each other in astonishment.
The only one who didn’t seem as surprised as he should have been was Nathan, the groom—conscience-stricken and horrified—but not surprised.
“What is this?” Uncle Gil demanded under his breath as the two officers reached the altar.
The tall, lanky policeman, whose uniform seemed too tight, ignored the question and peered at Nathan.
Beads of sweat broke out onto Nathan’s forehead. “Yes?”
“You’re under arrest for suspicion of grand theft auto—”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t steal anything—”
“You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak…”
Callie’s mind raced. Nothing in the bridal magazines that Serenity had forced her to read in the last ten days included etiquette on how to handle a police bust during the nuptials. This was above and beyond the duties of a maid of honor. She glanced over at Mitch, who stood next to Nathan with a dumbfounded look on his face. Clearly this was a first for him, too.
Serenity flushed scarlet and squeaked with panic. “Nathan?”
Nathan reached for Serenity’s hands. “I’m sorry, baby. I’ll straighten this out, somehow. Don’t worry.”
The minister stepped forward, looking indignant. “Whatever the trouble is, surely it can wait. We’re in the middle of a marriage sacrament here!”
The tall policeman pressed a piece of paper into the minister’s hands and watched his shorter, stockier partner slap handcuffs on the groom. “Tell it to the judge,” he replied. “He issued the arrest warrant.”
The minister scanned the paper, then passed it to Uncle Gil, who patted the left side of his chest in an automatic search for his glasses.
Serenity’s bridal bouquet shook as she gaped at the tuxedoed man beside her. “Pooky?”
Callie shot a dagger-filled look at her wannabe brother-in-law. “You want to tell us what this is about, Nathan?”
Nathan paled. “There’s been a mistake.”
Uncle Gil gave up trying to read the warrant. “This whole wedding is a mistake.”
Serenity’s eyes glistened with tears. “Uncle Gil, don’t let them take my Pooky Bear. Do something!”
“What am I supposed to do? They have a warrant, for Christ’s sake.” At the minister’s reproachful glare, Uncle Gil added, “Beg your pardon, Reverend.”
“My sister knows lots of policemen,” Serenity announced. “You people can’t do this. Dory, tell them.”
“So I date policemen,” Doreen said, flustered. “That doesn’t mean I’ve dated the whole precinct. Maybe they’re from the County Sheriff’s office.”
Serenity turned back to Nathan’s captors. “The point is, we know a lot of important people in this town, and you can’t do this.”
The policemen exchanged impassive glances.
“Evidently, they can,” Callie murmured.
“Five. I dated five. I don’t think that qualifies as ‘lots’, do you?” Doreen directed her question at the officer who held Nathan by the arm. He shrugged.
Nathan gazed at Serenity. “Whatever happens, I love you, baby.”
Callie braced herself as Serenity collapsed against her in a sobbing mass.
“What should we do?” Callie called out as the police escorted Nathan down the aisle of Deception Bay Baptist Church. “Post bail, or something?”
“I’ll call my lawyer,” Nathan said over his shoulder as they led him away. “And sure, bail would be great,” he added, as if Callie has just asked for him what kind of sandwich he wanted for lunch. “Sorry, folks,” he addressed the wedding guests as he passed by. “I’ll sort this all out.”
Nathan was nothing if not polite. Despite the fact that he’d just been arrested in the middle of his own wedding, his concern was for the congregation, who’d just been cheated out of their open bar and chicken Kiev buffet.