Murder on Edisto

Murder on Edisto

C. Hope Clark

September 2014 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-416

Book One of the Edisto Island Mysteries

 
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A big city detective. A lowcountry murder.

Peace, safety, a place to grieve and heal. After her husband is murdered by the Russian mobster they were trailing, Boston detective Callie Jean Cantrell comes home to her family’s oceanside cottage in South Carolina. There, she can keep their teenage son, Jeb, away from further threats.

But the day they arrive in Edisto Beach, Callie finds her childhood mentor and elderly neighbor murdered. Taunted by the killer, who repeatedly violates her home and threatens others in the community, Callie finds her new sanctuary has become her old nightmare. Despite warnings from the town’s handsome police chief, Callie plunges back into detective work, pursuing a sinister stranger who may have ties to her past. He’s turning a quiet paradise into a paranoid patch of sand where nobody’s safe. She’ll do whatever it takes to stop him.

C. Hope Clark is the award-winning author of The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, also set in her home state of South Carolina. In her previous life, she performed administrative investigations for the federal government and married an agent she met on a bribery investigation. She can be found either on the banks of Lake Murray or Edisto Beach with one or two dachshunds in her lap. Clark is also editor of the award-winning fundsforwriters.com. Find out more about her atchopeclark.com

 


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Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

Boston, October

SERGEANT DETECTIVE Callista Jean Morgan leaned stiffly against a display beside the drug store pharmacy, hands stuffed in her size six jeans, waiting for a prescription. She moved further away as a woman seated herself nearby, hacking, a tissue wadded up one nostril. Callie had to stay healthy for the Leo Zubov prosecution. Her mind played with future testi­mony against the man and envisioned her upcoming day in court with the pernicious ass. Thrill shivered up her spine.

The speedier the trial the better. The Russian drug czar deserved noth­ing but the best the legal system could dole out to the bratchnie. Whatever locked him away the quickest and the longest suited her. Since reaching detective, Callie had spent most of her five years running the mazes Zubov incessantly built through Boston’s criminal underground. She’d pursued one trail after another down a hundred dead ends... until last week.

The bastard had threatened her and her family, as well as every cop, clerk, and janitor in the Boston Police Department. This time, however, he’d be dried-up and ancient by the time he got out of jail. Hallelujah and amen!

Her fifteen-year-old son Jeb loitered a few feet away, reading the ingre­dients on a bag of candy for diabetics. "Oxymoron,” he said, tossing the item back on the shelf. "Why eat candy if there’s no sugar in it?”

"I’m impressed you know the meaning of that word,” she said.

"So you are listening.” Jeb stepped in front of her and stared deep into her eyes with his familiar please-let-me-have-something squint. "Can I drive home?”

She gazed up at her six-foot, dashing young sophomore. Too short to reach the second shelf of her kitchen cabinets, Callie often wore boots with heels. She restrained herself from tousling his blond curls, a contrast to her auburn bob. Instead, she glanced out the store’s plate glass window. Seven p.m. The sun was about gone for the day. "I’m not sure, Jeb. It’s getting dark.”

He acted forlorn. "But the permit says I can drive at night with an adult in the car.”

Callie’s recurring nightmare involved an out of control truck rushing toward her Explorer, with Jeb at the wheel. Sometimes he was seven with pinchable cheeks, sometimes a tall, lanky fifteen. She would throw a protec­tive arm across his chest, her foot stomping a nonexistent brake. She’d wake in a sea of sweat, her pulse thundering.

She never told her husband John. He dreamed nightmares of his own.

Jeb struck a silly pose, eying her, waiting for her answer. "Oh, come on, Mom.”

"Hush, I’m considering it.”

She figured eighteen about the proper age to get his license. Maybe when he went to college. She grinned at the exaggeration, then let the grin slide away as she realized how soon that time would come.

For the sake of their careers, she and John had chosen not to have more children after Jeb. But after a glorious drunken celebratory anniver­sary weekend, nine months later God gave them Bonnie. Even at thirty-eight, Callie delivered a perfect child... then lost her bright-eyed gift one horrific night when Bonnie simply stopped breathing.

Today would have been the baby’s first birthday.

John hadn’t mentioned the occasion. Neither had she. They were both at a loss what to do other than privately, silently relive the hurt.

"Callie Morgan?” called the pharmacist.

"That’s me.”

A young tech read the order. "Two prescriptions, right?”

"Do you need instructions how to use this medication?” he asked.

Birth control and an antidepressant. What was there to know other than she feared to relinquish either one since Bonnie’s death.

Callie’s phone rang, playing "Dixie.” A waiting gentleman scowled.

"Great, Mom,” Jeb whispered. "The South lost, remember?”

After studying caller ID, she wedged the phone on her shoulder as she paid the white-coated man. "Sorry,” she said, with her best South Carolina Lowcountry drawl three degrees thicker than usual. "My apologies, sir.”

Red-faced, Jeb walked in the opposite direction toward the vitamins.

Phone to her ear, she answered, "Callie Morgan.”

"It’s Waltham. You sitting down?”

She frowned at her boss’s gravelly, no-nonsense tone. "No, why?” Captain Detective Stan Waltham rarely led with gratuitous niceties. Callie’s Southern gentility usually drew at least one pleasantry out of the man. Not this time.

"The Feds stepped in on your case.”

"Why?” She closed her eyes. No! "Don’t tell me Zubov walks. We have him, Stan. He was at the buy, for God’s sake.” She walked away from the waiting herd of sick people. "What happened?”

"Officially they’ve told me jack shit, but a Homeland Security buddy I served with in the Gulf dropped me a whisper. Apparently Zubov has intel on some terrorist business, so they—”

"Damn it, he’s notwalking.”

Drugs, guns, human slavery—the local Russian criminal element did it all, but narcotics were Leo’s specialty. The bastard’s white-powdered ten­tacles reached into and beyond the city, across the state, into New York and who-knows-where else. Far-reaching, but old school. No history of terror­ist activity.

"Not sure about the details, Callie, but you and I are done with him.”

She spun around only to meet a tall, blue-haired woman. Callie glared as they maneuvered to pass each other. "Who the hell do I have to talk to?”

"Nobody, we’re—”

Her phone beeped. John calling.

"You need to take that?” Stan asked.

"Not now.” Callie let the call go to voice mail. "So, whose office door are we knocking on tomorrow?”

John rang again.

She’d left her husband at home with his head immersed in a work file strewn across the coffee table. His distraction from the day’s significance. Hers was to run the drug store errand, taking Jeb for comfort.

"I better take this call, Stan, but this thing with Leo isn’t over.”

"Yes, it is, Callie.”

"We’ll talk in the morning.”

She answered the waiting call, visualizing John running an impatient hand through his thick blond hair. "Everything okay?” she asked. "John?”

"Don’t come home.” His fast, blunt message held an unfamiliar con­cern, his order so eerily strict.

Callie stiffened. Was he so entrenched in his misery that he couldn’t face her tonight? Dammit, Bonnie’s death wasn’t her fault.

"Talk to me, John.”

"Intruders—”

The phone died.

Her heart seemed encased in ice. They’d always feared one of their arrests would seek revenge, finding his way to their doorstep. Adrenaline crashed through the chill and pumped madly into her system. She tried to call back. Shit. She tried again. The call routed to voice mail.

"Jeb!” She ran down the aisle where he leaned on the wall reading magazines and grasped his arm.

"Geez, Mom. What—”

She dragged him toward the door, his long legs stumbling. Outside she key-fobbed the locks, jumped into the driver’s seat, and fired the engine. As soon as Jeb shut his door, she slammed her portable blue light on the dash and sped into traffic.

Jeb’s palms slapped the dash and center console as he stared wide-eyed. "Mom, you’re scaring me. What’s wrong?” His voice had re­verted to adolescence, breaking between words.

"Buckle your seatbelt.” Callie glanced both ways before she ran a red light.

She dialed dispatch. "This is Detective Callista Morgan. All available units to 475-C Dorchester Avenue. Suspected intruder. Be advised this is the residence of a Boston PD detective and a deputy US marshal.”

She disconnected and dropped the phone in a cup holder.

A horn blared as she gripped the steering wheel with both hands, zipping the car around an Escalade and a minivan.

"Mom!” Jeb shouted as he slammed into the door. "What—”

"That was your dad,” Callie said, channeling all her faculties into driving. She sped around an SUV through an amber light. "Something’s wrong. I need you to hold it together.”

He pushed himself back into his seat, fear etched in his face.

Callie’s heart hammered her ribs as she bridled the gas and brake pedals to ride a razor edge between arriving quickly and not arriving at all, streetlights passing like a carnival ride.

A city bus and a utility van blocked both lanes as she took another cor­ner. Foot hard on and then off the brake, and onto the accelerator, she veered around them via the oncoming lane.

She didn’t want Jeb seeing this side of her. But she damn sure didn’t want him seeing the worst case scenario playing out in her head.

She swallowed once, then again as the first wouldn’t go down. Panic al­most overwhelmed her. This could be any of his cases. Any of hers. Names and file numbers raced in her head as fast as the blocks she whizzed past. But it was the Russian’s name that stuck.

She glanced at Jeb. Was the fear in his eyes mirroring hers? She wouldn’t glance again.

Three blocks ahead, in spite of the city lights, an angry glow shone in the dusk, setting fire to the October sky.

The stench of burning wire, insulation, and wood wafted into the car vents as she turned onto her street, tires squealing. Three Boston PD units sat several doors down from her address. Flames licked out the bottom floor windows of her two-story white-clapboard home, getting lost in clouds of gray smoke choking the air. Flickering shadows confirmed ad­vancement to the second floor.

Oh my God, John!

She jammed the car into park and leaped out. An officer turned and caught her in mid-stride. She struggled to get free, but he tightened his hold.

"You can’t go in there, Detective Morgan.”

She stared helplessly at the blaze, the wall of heat searing her face.

"Did anyone... did my husband get out?” Craning her neck, she scoured the gawking faces. Sleeve over her nose, she shouted, "He’s blond, six-feet—” then she gagged on thick fumes.

"We don’t know yet if anyone—”

An explosion shot flames out of the roof. She pulled against the of­ficer. "John!”

Fire fighters labored to unravel more hoses. In the background, she heard Jeb screaming for his father above all the sirens and people hollering.

A deafening blast. The force hurled her and the cop backward across the lawn. Air whooshed from her lungs as her back slammed into the grass. She lay half-dazed, but pain still tore through her left forearm.

Two fire fighters lifted her and smothered her burning sleeve, careful not to hit the jagged piece of half-embedded shrapnel that had ripped open her arm.

She stared numb at the burning wreckage of her home as someone fussed over her. No one could have survived that explosion. Then, as if to confirm the terrible finality, she caught the reality of John’s death in the sorrow of a fire fighter’s eyes, the slow shake of his head to his partner. Their glances back at her.

Jeb beat his way through the throng and threw himself into her arms. At first she didn’t hear his sobs, then her son’s deep wrenching cries re­verberated against her collarbone. She dug her fingers into his hair, her injured arm around his trembling body.

"Shhh,” she said against Jeb’s shoulder. She couldn’t bring herself to say everything would be all right. Nothing would ever be right again. As she stroked his head, she squeezed her eyes shut, and her tears leaked into his shirt. She could pray John was kidnapped, but her heart told her it just wasn’t so.


 

 

Chapter 2

Middleton, South Carolina, June, Thirty-Two Months Later

CALLIE CRUMPLED the legal envelope into her purse. Damn!Gift or nightmare, she wasn’t yet certain, but the surprise offer from her parents wasn’t in her plans. Not that she had plans.

Eighteen-year-old Jeb drove them away from the Middleton subdivi­sion with her folks, Lawton and Beverly Cantrell, three car-lengths behind. The Ford’s dash clock read noon. The June temp had already reached ninety-six degrees.

Jeb turned the five-year-old Escape onto Highway 61. "What’s in the envelope?”

"A deed.” Tension twisted her stomach. "Don’t follow so close be­hind that truck.”

He stared wide-eyed. "A deed to what?”

"Watch the road, Jeb.” Callie chewed the inside of her cheek and prac­ticed slow breathing as she reconnoitered the road ahead. Kids eighteen and under comprised a large proportion of traffic accidents. "The beach house.”

"The beach house,” he mimicked in droll fashion. "Like wow. Who gets handed a freakin’ house? Come on! Act excited!” He flicked her arm. "Now you’re stuck with me on the weekends, unless you want me to commute the forty-five miles each day between Edisto and college in downtown Charleston.”

"Not when you’re driving like this, no.”

He winked. "Dang, we own a piece of the beach!”

"It’s not on the sand.”

"I know where it is. You can still hear the waves, for Pete’s sake.”

She sighed. "This was supposed to be a reflective summer, Jeb. You and I enjoying the ocean. Me deciding where to live and work.” Callie recognized her mother’s coup, anchoring them close, as permanent as she could.

Callie grinned weakly at her son, loving him so much, wanting desperately to take him up on his offer to stay home when college started in August. But he deserved a new start, a new normal.

Not that living on Edisto Beach was horrible confinement. Her childhood there held beautiful memories, and until classes started, Jeb could create some of his own. The soft breezes, pelicans, and rattling fronds of the trees supplied backdrop to shell collecting, kayaking, and making new friends while seated, kicking in tidal pools. Who couldn’t like that?

She hoped he would develop his own close relationship with her old white-headed neighbor Papa Beach, too. The man was a pure Godsend.

Papa had first called her three months ago from his place, asking her to visit Edisto. Her father might’ve prompted that first call, but the request beckoned her like cotton candy at the fair. She eagerly escaped the social rigidity of the Cantrells’ political lives to the healing voice of her childhood mentor. She’d spent hours chatting, sometimes sitting with him on the sand watching the orange and purple watercolor horizon. She went back three more times.

Now eighty years old, Henry Beechum, Papa Beach only to Callie, had once soothed her little girl fears, no matter how silly. And now he’d con­vinced her to stay at Edisto to heal amidst the Lowcountry nature and low-key lifestyle. He said her life decisions could be better made in a peace­ful environment. Papa never dictated. He suggested. He listened. And he let her cry.

Callie tugged her sleeve down over the left forearm scar out of habit, then back up due to the heat. The surprise real estate gift from her father was noble, but panic seized Callie when he’d said the word deed. A deed made things complicated. Why couldn’t her parents let life evolve instead of forcing its hand? Why did they think she left home to start with?

She hadn’t even thanked her daddy, because that represented grati­tude, not the manic fear that crawled inside her.

Callie massaged her neck. Electricity, insurance, taxes... in her name only.

She’d tried to remain in Boston after John’s murder, working long, exhausting hours before rushing home to stand guard over Jeb, to soothe his grief while fighting to ignore her own. Jeb’s grades had faltered, and he avoided going out at night, harboring a phobia about coming home to his mother being gone, too. They ate dinners in front of the television, watch­ing anything but police dramas that brought reality into their living room.

Her daddy had coaxed her back to South Carolina after that long pain­ful year in Boston. Seven times mayor of Middleton, he’d been elected under the delicate yet crafty oversight of his wife with a poli-sci major from Columbia College—in South Carolina, not New York. What Beverly didn’t have in sheepskin prestige she made up for in a dynamic crusade to keep Lawton Cantrell in power. The woman held a master’s degree in ma­nipulation.

One month turned into two as Jeb acclimated and regained his fun-loving self after Callie’s extended leave of absence. At that point, Callie hadn’t the heart to drag him back to Massachusetts, so she enrolled him in high school. After six months of watching him thrive, she resigned from the Boston PD. Jeb was healing.

She was not.

Callie’s head slumped against her palm. She wanted to remain unteth­ered. Scholarships and a childhood college fund established by her parents covered Jeb’s tuition. John’s insurance money and pension investment would cover them for a few years, but eventually she had to consider a job. But not yet. Just not yet.

She ought to feel lucky with a house dropped in her lap. So why didn’t she?

An hour later, Jeb pulled the SUV off Jungle Road, the Cantrells easing up in the BMW behind him. He parked in the drive and opened the car door. "How awesome is this?”

Callie stared at the house that hadn’t changed a nail in the thirty years she’d known it. Raised fourteen feet off the ground by pilings embedded ten feet deep to protect against hundred-year floods and hurricanes, the three-bedroom house welcomed visitors with teal shutters and beige-painted stairs set against creamy siding. Not huge, but tasteful, with simple class.

Her fingernails bit into the seat, as she conceded that the house was probably the best logical choice for her at the moment. Damn you, Mother.

"Mom?”

She feigned a smile at Jeb and whispered, "Give me a minute.”

He studied her like a textbook. "You need something?”

Callie shook her head. Then she quit rubbing the scar on her forearm and gripped the door handle as she looked up at the porch. The wind caught the teal and peach sign hanging atop the entrance’s twenty steps. It swung on tiny chains without a care in the world, like the beach child she used to be.

Her mother had named the cottage Chelsea Morning, after the Neil Diamond song. Callie knew every word to every one of the singer’s tunes, songs that had served as her lullabies and the background music to her adolescence. Slow, cleansing breaths. She played Holly Holy in her head.

Then she heard it: the gentle call of the surf, a distant rush and draw as rollers churned against the shore only to be sucked back into an immense ocean that never slept. A rogue seagull hovered over her head, calling once, then as he flew away on the salty current, she inhaled.

Three blocks from the water, the place held just enough privacy to deter heavy seasonal car traffic, but sat close enough for salt to devour the paintwork. The view out back, however, would later see a tired sun sink all haze-hot and liquid orange into the marsh, setting the tips of the reeds on fire before darkness swallowed the day.

Fire.

Sunsets, dusk... fire. The time of day John died. The sun’s last rays dancing with licks of flame that shot her husband’s ashes into the New England air.

Callie shut down the thought before the nightmare of Boston surged back.

Jeb knocked on her window, his brows raised. He cut a glance over his shoulder at his grandmother, who waited with a suitcase in one hand and a blue orchid in the other.

Callie exhaled and exited the car.

Her father appeared with a box in one arm, offered the support of his other, and escorted her up the steps. Jeb bounded inside. Beverly strutted behind him as if waltzing into the Ritz Carlton in a white mink wrap, a poodle with its snout high at the end of a jewel-studded leash. "Let’s get you two settled in,” she said.

The woman disappeared into the master bedroom, still talking. "You haven’t met the neighbor to the left. She’s into yoga, and not just the exer­cises. Incense, bells, candles, mindless stuff. She’ll try to convert you into a meditating New Age fanatic.”

Callie stopped outside her childhood room, tuning out her mother. Her favorite quilt rested on her old double bed. She lowered the packing box onto it and sank into the mattress. She ran her palms gently across the stitched image of a gold starfish, her favorite sea creature. Beverly had remembered. This was the comforter pulled out of the closet each time they shifted Chelsea Morning from a rental to their short-term retreat. Bless her mother’s rare journey into sentimentality. Maybe there was hope for her—for them—yet.

Bending until her cheek touched the ruffled cotton pillow sham, Callie inhaled, taking in the aroma of lilac fabric softener. She ached to crawl under the quilt’s protection—to escape to a time when her life was one amazing ride after another, and her heart wasn’t so bruised.

Over two years later, and she still couldn’t call herself a widow.

Beverly labeled Callie’s emotional concerns as spells. Jeb babied her, when it should be the other way around. But deep in the recesses of her soul, her panic attacks and fear-ridden dreams stemmed from the fact she’d always consider the Zubov family a threat to her family’s well-being. Leo had died, but there were dozens of them still breathing. She didn’t know how to get over that.

Leo had given the order to kill everyone in her house that night. She was as sure of it as the barnacles clinging to the beach piers. John just happened to be the only one there. Zubov meant to send a strong message.

She’d gotten the point then, and every day and night since.

Then the bastard had died before witness protection could whisk him away. Stroke. The Russian mafia martyred him as they did all their dead. The fact that Leo’s obese body and lavish lifestyle exacerbated his demise meant nothing. To his family, the people who cuffed him became the focus for revenge.

Her mother’s voice lifted in singsong fashion from the other room, her Carolina drawl thick. "Callie? Would you like me to sort your hanging clothes in any order? I have my closet color coordinated, but—”

"No.” Callie cleared her throat, regretting her harsh reply. "Just hang them. I’ll sort everything later.”

This room had so many little girl memories. What she’d be when she grew up. How to kiss a boy. When to wear make-up. Crying herself to sleep over acne ruining her life. She smiled.

Callie dragged herself up and left the bedroom, hefting a box containing framed pictures and her small jewelry collection onto the dresser in the other bedroom. Her parents’ dresser. Hers was in the room with seahorses and starfish, and she bet she’d still find grains of sand in the recesses of the white rattan. After her folks left, she might switch rooms.

"I’m sorry, dear, but I went ahead and sorted your clothes.” Beverly’s muffled announcement radiated from the closet. "I think you’ll like what I’ve done.”

Callie shook her head at the woman’s remarkable gift to turn a deaf ear. Yeah. She would definitely switch rooms.

Callie lifted a family picture of Jeb, John, and herself on Jeb’s four­teenth birthday, spent on a Boston shore, tiny Bonnie in her arms. Callie brushed her finger across the glass. "I only intended to visit Edisto for the summer, you know.”

Beverly ventured out of the closet. "Did I hear you right, dear?” She spread her arms wide. "We just gave you all this, so I—”

"Don’t get it.” Callie set down the picture and faced her mother. "You’ve never gotten it.” A tear threatened, not what she intended, but she held her composure. Who got mad over a new house?

Her lithe, prim mother with a magazine-perfect bob of white waves and celery capris shifted her feet, but left her gaze on her daughter.

An overwhelming year of biting her tongue, stifled under the same roof with her parents’ overbearance, spilled over. "Where I went to school, my choice of husband.” She mimicked her mother’s voice. "Massachusetts is a long way from good people, dear.” Callie inhaled, regretted the overreaction, and waited for her mother’s next blow.

Instead, her mother sighed. "I know you feel you must lash out, dear, but it’s been over two years since John left.”

"And Bonnie.”

"Yes,” her mother said. "But they left some time ago, don’t you think—”

Callie’s jaw tightened. "For God’s sake, Mother, they’re dead, not on vacation.” And buried in Boston, a thousand miles away.

"I understand that,” Beverly replied, seating herself on an ottoman. "Like it or not, the house is yours. Sell it if you wish, but we wanted to give you a place of your own.” She cocked her head like a petulant headmistress. "It’s time for Jeb to have a home, too.”

"Jeb’s home is mydecision to make! Where I live is my choice.” Callie tucked trembling hands in her jeans, unable to mark that one point in time that caused the chasm between her and her mother. To identify what to fix—and fix it.

"I hurt, too, you know,” Beverly said, slipping easily into her feel-sorry-for-me voice. "I never got to see my granddaughter.”

There it was. Callie clenched her teeth at Beverly’s well-worn trump card.

"Your daughter lived,” Callie replied. "Anyway, you never came to Boston to visit.”

"My dear, you never asked me to.”

Callie moved the box of photographs to the floor with a thud. She’d decided years ago that to become a self-assured police officer, she couldn’t afford the emotional bombardment of her mother’s judgment. "Don’t you see why I moved so far away? To get away from your control. John, Jeb, and the Boston PD completed me, and Bonnie...” She drew in sharply. "Bonnie became the cherry on top.”

Her mother folded her hands slowly, which she always did when she wanted to cement a point. "Law enforcement changed you, dear.”

Callie’s eyes narrowed. "Law enforcement defined me, Mother.” Her clenched fist struck her chest. "It led me to John and gave you grandchil­dren. All achieved without your input.”

"That’s enough,” said her father from the doorway.

Jeb peered uneasily over Lawton’s shoulder.

Callie’s heart sank at her father’s mask of disappointment. These thrusts of iron will dug under Callie’s skin. Here she stood, caught between the guilt of being an ingrate and her need to be a grown woman with a mind of her own.

"Wish you wouldn’t fight,” Jeb said softly, the pain clear in his eyes.

Beverly wouldn’t think such a comment was directed at her, so Callie stopped arguing. Just like she always did.

"We’re fine, dear,” Beverly said, the timbre of her voice now oh-so-damn level.

If Callie heard dearone more friggin’ time.

She approached her father, the parent who could display affection, and employed the nickname that melted his bones—given to him the first time he let her drive the boat when she was only eight. "Captain?”

Lawton yanked an initialed handkerchief from his pocket, the cloth a traditional stocking stuffer from Beverly each Christmas. "What, Callie Scallywag?” Her father’s cheeks and neck flushed red from the heat as he wiped his forehead with the handkerchief.

"Jeb and I don’t need help unpacking,” she said, rubbing his sweaty sleeve. "We’d like to enjoy the peace. Walk the beach maybe.”

"The beach sounds great,” Jeb said, a huge smile returning to his face.

Lawton studied his daughter.

"Nonsense.” Beverly strode past toward the kitchen, drawing them be­hind her into the living room. "I can throw together a snack for us to eat on the porch.”

Lawton winked at Callie and pushed his handkerchief back into his pocket. "Bev, sweetheart, don’t I have some sort of breakfast meeting tomorrow morning?”

"Yes,” Beverly said, peeking around the refrigerator door. "You’re due at the Rotarians’ breakfast at seven.”

Lawton ran an arm around Jeb’s shoulders. Both men were six foot, the long noses and chins obviously alike. He squeezed Jeb once then faked a punch to the boy’s gut, raising a flinch then a grin from Jeb. "I haven’t even thought about preparing what to say,” Lawton said.

Beverly appeared with cheese and condiments. "You don’t ever pre­pare.”

Lawton walked to the kitchen, lifted the items from his wife, and re­turned them to the refrigerator. "Let’s go.”

"But—”

He took her arm gently. "They need time to themselves.”

As her mother walked off to get her purse, Callie ran to her father and threw her arms around his neck. "Thanks for the house, Daddy,” she whispered.

"You’re welcome,” he whispered back. "I’ll tell your mother.”

TENSION DRAINED away as Callie’s gaze followed her parents’ white BMW on its way toward Highway 174, back to their Middleton kingdom. From his duffel bag in the hallway, Jeb dug out swimming shorts, flip-flops, and sunglasses before bolting toward the door.

"Got your phone?” Callie hollered.

He frowned. "It’ll get messed up or stolen.”

Her concern escalated as he touched the doorknob. She had to adjust to him being out of reach. The ocean was just down the street. She walked over and caressed his warm cheek. "Okay, but try not to stay too long. You’ll burn.”

His mouth twisted into a familiar half-grin that made her heart leap at the memory of John. She nudged a blond lock back from his face. "Go. Have fun.”

As the latch caught behind him, Callie inhaled, then glanced around, absorbing what was now hers. Her fingers rubbed a knotted piece of drift­wood on the bookcase. The cliché coastal decorations had to go. She would repaint the canary yellow walls to a neutral and turn the place into a real residence.

She returned to the bedroom to unpack. The nearest box stood out from all the others with no label. After ripping the tape free, the flaps sprung up. Bonnie’s white blanket ballooned out, the one from her car seat, the only item of hers unclaimed by fire and smoke.

As her hands entwined in the cotton, sobs crept up, then unable to fight them back, she let them engulf her. Her body shook as she hugged the blanket, rocking, rocking. That tiny, sweet-smelling baby girl. How often did she have to relive the morning she’d found Bonnie cold and oh so blue?

Her heart hit her chest and scared her. The first sign. Spinning around, she fumbled for her water bottle on the nightstand, missing it twice before she snared it and darted to the front porch. She rested elbows on the railing, head drooped, forehead almost touching the wood, breathing deep as she surveyed the crushed-shell drive. A renter’s golf cart puttered alongside Jungle Road fifty feet away.

Don’t panic. Don’t panic.

She forced in deep breaths again and again to lower her racing pulse.

The house had turned claustrophobic without warning. Damn it. Sucking in, she closed her eyes and counted to ten. She listened to her breathing and her pulse, controlling them both by sheer act of will. A sip of water helped. She opened her eyes, assimilating the surf noise, the gulls overhead. She eased back into the world.

And now she was tired.

A gull squawked and landed on the step ten feet away, dropped a sticky white present for her and lifted off again. She smiled. That sort of crap was doable. Lifting elbows, she brushed off the grains of sand.

She had tossed the antidepressants back in Boston, not wanting a crutch. Then during one particularly needy night, she’d learned alcohol provided a decent substitute. Running held off the escalating urge to drink herself into oblivion, so she’d bought two hundred dollar sneakers to guilt herself into keeping the habit. Pouring herself into sport instead of a glass, she had dropped a scary fifteen pounds off her petite frame, but earned it back in muscle within two months. Twice she’d run so long she almost collapsed... back in Boston. Middleton had been another story. Anyway, time to sweat out this day and burn off the melancholy.

A local patrol car in white and navy crawled by, the sandy-haired of­ficer’s elbow draped out the open window, his tanned hand holding the roof. He raised a couple fingers off the steering wheel as their eyes met.

The uniform; the love of seeing a man wear it. A deep sense of longing stirred. She waved a reply in kind, a benign hello she still used when she saw an­other badge. She missed the work and being married to a man who also loved it.

The warm gust of brine-laden breeze whipped a lock into her eyes. She tucked overgrown bangs behind her ears and filled her lungs again with the salt air. Jeb would come in near dark, his hair sticky, cheeks sun-kissed, and she’d have to remind him to leave his gritty shoes at the door. He’d earned the right to enjoy his life, and she was determined to ensure that happened.

She straightened to go inside for her sneakers when a rebellious gust of wind raised the clackety echoes of a bamboo chime from the gray-sided house next door.

Where was Papa Beach today? Her favorite neighbor had yet to make an appearance. Surely her father had called to let him know they were com­ing.

She’d make him her first house guest to celebrate their arrival, even ask him to bring his Korean War photos that Jeb enjoyed. She went inside to get her new keys, unable to leave a door unlatched like the natives. Shoes on and house locked, she clomped down the stairs.

Making her way across the twenty yards between them, she headed up the neat, well-tended steps to Papa Beach’s residence next door. Her mood lifted as she forecasted the hug, the joke about how big she’d grown— though she’d seen him only three weeks ago—and a piece of grape salt­water taffy.

Which hand holds the surprise, Callie?

Um, that one, Papa B, she’d say, only for it to always be the other.

She reached the top landing of his tiny home, half the size of most on this end of the island. Her smile vanished.

The doorknob hung by its guts, the doorframe splintered. She tensed and instinctively reached for her Glock only to grab an empty waistband.


 

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