Echoes of Edisto

Echoes of Edisto

C. Hope Clark

August 2016 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-706-9

Book Three: The Edisto Island Mysteries


 
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"A phenomenal read from beginning to end.” Sharon Sala, bestselling author, about Edisto Jinx

Murder came in with the tide . . .

Edisto Island is a paradise where people escape from the mainstream world. Yet for newly sworn-in Edisto Police Chief Callie Jean Morgan, the trouble has just begun . . .

When a rookie officer drowns in a freak crash in the marsh, Callie’s instincts tell her it wasn’t an accident. As suspects and clues mount, Callie’s outlandish mother complicates the investigation, and Callie’s long-time friendship with Officer Mike Seabrook takes a turn toward something new—but is shadowed by the unsolved mystery of his wife’s death. Everyone’s past rises to the surface, entangling with death that cuts to the bone.

The roar of the surf made Callie’s steps soundless, her thoughts louder. Two and a half weeks on the job, and she’d lost an officer. Edisto hadn’t sacrificed an officer in its entire history, and the first female chief had to be the one to break the record.

She sniffled. Salty breezes began to clear her sinuses, but nothing could assuage the guilt clinging to her like the muggy air

Sarah lived. Francis died. And somebody had to be disappointed at that freakish turn of events, because she suspected it was meant to be the other way around. Crime was for people who lived across the big bridge on the mainland. But whether the natives liked it or not, the brake lines were cut on Edisto. She didn’t want to go down that path, but one of them might be a frustrated, unfulfilled killer.


C. Hope Clark is the award-winning author of the Carolina Slade Mysteries and now the Edisto Island Mysteries. During her career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she met and married a federal agent—now a private investigator. She plots murder mysteries at their lakeside home in South Carolina when not visiting Edisto Beach. Visit Hope at chopeclark.com.

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

THE LAST DRAWER of the cabinet, the one at floor level, slid out rough, like rust on rust, but the sight of the single-barrel whiskey bottle gave her an Easter-egg thrill.

She reached, then didn’t, imagining the whiff if she opened the cap. She knew exactly how long it’d been. Five weeks and three days, and while she wouldn’t embarrass herself at reciting the hours, she recalled the evening. A Tuesday, around nine.

Marie, the lone administrative staff, called from the front. "Chief Morgan?”

Police Chief Callie Jean Morgan shut the file drawer. Wasn’t her liquor anyway, and it was too awkward to toss it now.

"Yes?” she hollered back. The station was small, and Callie talking to Marie was like being home and calling her eighteen-year-old son Jeb from his bedroom to supper. She opened another drawer. Surely the old chief had kept a personal log of some sort before he left for North Carolina, noting the people to watch, to avoid, to cater to in this town.

"We have a visitor who wishes to speak to you,” Marie said.

Walking into the main open floorplan space of the Edisto PD station, Callie acknowledged Marie, a slightly frumpy, close-cropped blonde in her late-thirties, then approached the counter. "Yes, sir, how can I help you?”

Clad only in a red Speedo and sandals, the over-sunned Californian shook a citation in the air, loudly intent on having his Constitutional say. "This damn ticket is excessive, and I want it revoked. Now.”

Officer Francis Dickens had radioed her for confirmation before issuing the citation to a celebrity—for public nudity. The man had exited beach access twelve, flaunting his assets all the way back to his rental, prompting six complaints to 911. Callie’d heard the actor’s name from television but feigned ignorance for no other reason than to irritate him. His series had come and gone over a decade ago anyway.

The visitor shifted to his other hip, and Callie wished his tiny stretch of spandex would pinch in a wrong place and send him on his way. If he’d kept the dang thing on he wouldn’t be here. His obscenities flying, she let him fret until he pointed down at her badge from his ten-inch height advantage, snatching her to the present enough to lean back from his reach.

She walked around the counter into the lobby. Palms on her utility belt, she fought the instinct to pin the man’s cheek against the wall, his bony hand twisted behind him. But this wasn’t Boston, where she’d managed people like him with ease. This was her childhood beach home, a place in love with tourists where a show of force represented poor decorum.

It hadn’t been an easy journey putting the badge back on. Admittedly, law was in her blood, and the mayor milked the opportunity to insert her diversity into his administration by offering her the chief’s job. She was two years out of practice, but she had this. Hell, it was Edisto Beach, for God’s sake. This loudmouth visitor was just a bum part of policing a tourist town, pun intended.

"I paid damn good money to rent on the water,” the actor said, his spittle barely missing Callie’s chin. "So much for your so-called Southern hospitality.

The two of them remained on the outside of the counter separating the discussion and whatever evolved from it, distant from Marie and the two empty desks that Callie’s six officers shared on a rotational basis. The man hadn’t fazed Marie, who pecked on her keyboard.

This guy lived on the higher end of the financial spectrum, and Edisto needed his wallet. Thank goodness, however, he represented an anomaly. Most of Edisto’s visitors presented better manners.

The errant citizen shook himself, as if preparing to posture on stage. "Oh, why did I think a hick state like South Carolina would be progressive enough to accept the human body?”

"I’m sure I don’t know, sir,” Callie replied.

Mr. Speedo slid his ugly composure to one of congeniality, as if trying a new tactic. "So how will you deal with this?”

She smiled. "We’re progressive enough to take American Express, sir.”

His tanned complexion reddened. "Damn you! Maybe I ought to take this down to Wainwright Realty and demand she pay it. And refund my money for the whole damn vacation! I’ll go home and tell everybody to avoid this place, and Iknow people.”

Callie tried not to show her delight. Hell, she might escort him down to the real estate office herself to see his exchange with the former Marine-turned-broker.

The radio crackled. "Dispatch, this is Francis. Marie, you there?”

"Dispatch here. What you got, Francis?”

Marie quit typing the monthly report summarizing the department’s September accomplishments. Soon Callie would present her first report to town council, reciting the number of golf cart speeding violators and empty houses checked. Nerve-wracking stuff that she intended to love every minute of until she retired.

"Got a 10-50 at Scott Creek, just outside of town limits,” Officer Francis Dickens relayed. "Single car and single occupant. Got a civilian on scene in the water attempting to assist. No doubt we’ll need a wrecker, but nobody’s underwater. Send an ambulance in case.”

Callie glanced at the wall clock. Four thirty. Kind of early for someone to be that Bacardi’d up. Living within a stone’s throw of the Atlantic, she learned to keep up with tides, and it was near to high. The water wasn’t particularly deep at that spot, but deep enough....

"Mike there?” Francis asked.

"He called in and took today off,” Marie answered, glancing at Callie.

Officer Mike Seabrook’s second need to skip a full day’s work was highly unusual, leaving Callie to run the place without him. Ordinarily he served at her elbow, dropping subtle hints on how to approach different residents. Containing tourists equated to herding cats in her mind, but Seabrook had a science for that, too.

An ex-doctor turned cop, he often proved himself in that department, too. Callie felt over her healed ribs, recalling Seabrook’s abilities after her run-in with the infamous Edisto Jinx six weeks ago.

A six-foot two-inch man who’d served six months as interim chief engendered more faith from the officers than a five-foot two-inch burned-out female detective not long out of a self-imposed sabbatical. Her experience still trumped anyone else’s out here, though, and one by one she’d win these people over. She had to. She and her son had decided Edisto should be their forever home.

To aid the transition she even stopped dating Seabrook, postponing that inevitable ripple of whisper across the island. She missed their private conversations, the respectable kisses, and a man’s arms around her.

The ticket almost touched her nose. "Waiting, Chief,” the visitor said, almost vibrating with frustration.

Callie gestured toward the door and escorted Speedo man to the exit. "Sorry, I have an accident to tend to. The ticket sticks. You have thirty days to pay it.”

"Bitch.”

"So I’ve been told.” She pushed the door.

"Humph.” He marched past her outside to the parking lot and slung open the door to his Lexus.

Callie paused a second to ensure he left. "What a nuisance.”

"You know who he is, right?” Marie asked.

"Yep, but can’t let him know that.” Callie lifted her cap from the hook on the wall. "I better check out that accident. I’ll get with you on that report tomorrow. Aren’t tourists supposed to be gone by September?”

"Not till the middle of October.” Marie returned to her report. "I’ll wait around a bit in case you get back before quitting time. Update me, if you don’t mind.”

Callie trotted to her cruiser. Things were better with Marie. The office manager had been leery when a woman stepped into the chief’s position two weeks ago. Each of their conversations built another inch of trust, though. Marie had worked the desk since high school. Alienating her would alienate a third of Edisto.

Static sounded on her shoulder mic. "Callie? This is Thomas. You going to check on Francis?”

She waited for the "or not” on the end of that statement, grateful for its absence. She leaned in to her shoulder as she left the building. "On my way.”

"Let me finish with this ticket, and I’ll meet you there. Thomas out.”

As she dropped into her cruiser’s leather seat, the nakedness at the lack of a vest unnerved her yet again. None of the past chiefs had ever worn them, to include Seabrook. When in uniform in Boston, a vest was a second skin. This small community way of life took some getting used to, where the worst hazard was a teenager breaking and entering an empty rental for a television set. Or a dried up celebrity demanding special attention.

A Klaxon horn repeated itself at the fire station next door. She jumped, the old memory of her own fire in Boston rearing its head, then told herself to get moving. The narrow two-lane causeway onto Edisto Beach would soon bottleneck with first responders. Highway 174 was the only access across the water.

On a Wednesday afternoon, tourist movement was light. Callie drove her cruiser up Murray Street to Palmetto Boulevard where she allowed herself some speed. She waved as she passed Officer Thomas Gage and a convertible of teenagers. A few houses later, she passed Seabrook’s place, also on Palmetto. As the unofficial second-in-command, he maintained the fourth car in the fleet. It sat idle in his drive, his personal car gone, making her wonder what had been so urgent for him to call in last minute and take the day off. They’d become close enough to share such things, or so she thought.

They were overdue for a private dinner to air what was going on.

Three miles later she turned onto the highway and spotted Francis’s vehicle, lights pulsing, but he was nowhere in sight. EMTs and maybe the short brush fire truck would appear in a minute. She eased up to the rear of the cruiser and slid her sunglasses on. Sunlight reflecting off saltwater blinded in autumn, as bad or worse than summer.

Her walk turned to a jog as recognition snapped her to attention. The trunk of the half-submerged car had popped open, one suitcase floating, another’s contents strewn across the marsh. Sarah Rosewood’s car. The full-time resident lived two houses down from Callie. The stuck vehicle rested maybe thirty yards off the road, having accelerated too fast judging by the distance. Not what she’d expect from Sarah. She was only in her sixties, not quite elderly enough to hit the wrong pedal or accelerate by accident.

"Help!” shouted a man Callie didn’t recognize. Chest-deep in the water, he hollered, "The officer slipped under and he’s caught! I can’t get him out!”

Jesus!

Unbuckling her utility belt, Callie dropped it to the ground along with her phone, kicked off her shoes, and leaped off the road bank into the marsh. She swam to the driver’s side and tried to stand, water almost up to her neck. Sarah huddled outside the car, a couple yards to the side, muddy and scared. Callie spit out a mouthful of the brown salty water. "Where’s Francis?”

"Follow me.” The civilian dove, Callie close behind.

She felt Francis floundering and pushing against the car before she saw him blurred in the stirred up muck. His legs had slid beneath the Volvo, probably as he tried to gain purchase, and the one-ton car had rocked back, entrapping him. Callie’s feet sank into at least a foot or more of the sulphur-smelling pluff so renowned to the barrier islands. She and the civilian struggled to lift the car, finally finding the rhythm to function in tandem.

Air whooshing from her lungs with each exertion, she motioned a thumb up.

They hit the surface, and she shouted, "Deep breath and try again.”

They dove together, more in sync. Again, they rushed to settle a stance in the uncertain marsh bottom, in a squat. Was that movement she felt? They shoved harder, each effort slowly swaying the car.

Her right heel slipped out from under her, then the left. Callie’s feet slid in spite of her back-pedaling. The Volvo trapped her at an angle, up to her thighs beside Francis.

He wasn’t moving.

And she couldn’t either.

Panic rising, she shook him once, twice, needing him to help. Then she reached behind her to haul herself back out, but the stranger grabbed her left arm, disabling her attempt, not understanding her plan.

She yelled, "Stop,” the bubbles reminding her she couldn’t afford further loss of air.

The man said something incoherent under water, then yanked her with urgency. A jolt shot through her shoulder. She tried to pull loose, but he only heaved harder.

Her lungs burned.

Damn it, they had to quit fighting each other. Pushing into the muck, sinking deeper, she grappled, dug, reached for anything solid.

Spots formed across her vision. Could she breathe water?

Of course not.

But would they revive her if she did?

She squeezed her eyes shut. Though she held no air, her chest longed to explode, take in whatever the inhale contained.

Jeb! He’d lose another parent.

Another set of hands gripped her right arm, yanking it out from under her. The car moved. She slid free, heart pounding triple-time, and she dared to take a breath, only taking in water. Now she couldn’t breathe at all. Choking, she glimpsed Thomas before he lifted her into someone else’s grasp.

Like a baby, people passed her in an assembly line to the road where someone set her on a blanket, an EMT instantly rolling her to her side.

She gagged then threw up, salt water spewing from her lungs across the black sneakers of the squatting EMT.

"Slow down, Ms. Morgan. You’re okay. Leave this on,” he said, placing an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth.

"Francis,” she said, voice scratchy and thick between coughs that couldn’t reach the water still down deep. She snatched at the mask and struggled to rise.

"Oh no you don’t,” the paramedic said, his two-hundred-pound bulk easily holding her slim shoulders. "There are ten men out there right now, and you’d just be in the way.”

The police chief... in the way.

Callie rounded from his grasp and pivoted on her butt to see the rescue.

In the short time she’d been trapped, Highway 174 had transformed into a circus. The ambulance beside her, a squad firetruck to her left. Cars backed up in both directions, tourists inconvenienced yet curious from the horde of two dozen people that continued to grow.

Two divers came up sputtering. "Still pinned,” one managed to shout out. He swam to the hood, ordering as he splashed. "Everybody, lean into this side. On three, push.”

The briny water’s swirling pluff and sawgrass cared little about the urgency. Rescuers placed themselves, and three others jumped in from the road, one with a rope. A guy on the bank tied a loose end to a truck bumper. Others shouted that wouldn’t work.

Too long. They’re taking too long. Why did they pull her out first? He’d been under longer.

"One, two, three!” the lead man shouted again.

A firefighter waded in with a scuba tank, and Callie dared pray he could keep Francis breathing. Tears streamed down her face.

Her muscles clenched with those of the rescuers. Not Francis. Not on my watch. Damn it, not on my watch. Never before had she hated her small stature so much, logic dictating she let the brawny lead when every part of her being cried to help. And all she’d done, as the EMT put it, was get in the way.

A cry went out from the crowd. Two men slid under like she had, but they resurfaced, blowing and kicking to reposition. The eighties model silver Volvo barely rocked, suctioned in place, the slurping loud, the paper-mill odor of the marsh pungent.

Another firefighter prepared the ladder, but everyone sensed seconds fled too fast for a Plan B.

A winch hook from somewhere reached one man, and he positioned it in a quick yank. Then as the men lost their grips for the second time, he stood and punched the air. "Go!”

Onlookers backed up when the rope went taut, the cable stiffened, pulled by the firefighter at the truck. A few yards to the side, the four-wheel drive dug in, its engine growling, the odor of burning rubber drifting through the hint of white smoke rising into the wet Lowcountry afternoon.

Callie resisted a glance at her watch, her instincts screaming about the passing time.

The rescuers thrust their shoulders and backs into the task with new vigor, the cable holding their advances. Grunts and screams escaped from their bellies as the weight rolled enough for someone to grasp Francis and haul him out.

A line formed quickly. People passed his limp form through the water, and Callie ripped the mask from her face. They lowered Francis to the hard ground and began pumping water from his chest.

Hovering close by, reaching wide to keep others behind her, Callie felt each heave to Francis’s chest in her own, her pulse frantic.

Francis was the first officer to greet her after Seabrook when she arrived on the beach so broken and lost. She found Francis naively charming, his youthful twenty-six years a constant contrast to his effort to wield authority. Eager. Sweet.

They pulled out the defibrillator. "Back!” one guy shouted. "It’s wet here, everybody move back.”

The circle widened.

"Clear!”

A flinch flew through Callie as Francis’s body jolted. Another shock. And another.

Finally, the medics ceased effort. Each bystander seemed afraid to be the one to move first for fear of accepting Francis’s death.

That’s when Callie heard the silence.

She studied Francis’s boots, needing to focus on something. Her heart felt ten times bigger in her chest, as if it might crack her ribs again. This couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be.

She searched for Thomas. He leaned against the ambulance, dripping, staring at the ground. Somewhere a woman sobbed. A man mumbled, "Oh, my dear lord.”

Groups formed, searching each other for comfort.

An unknown gentleman asked her if she was okay. She waved him away.

This was not about her.

Once they lifted the body from the wet ground to a gurney, Callie pushed through. The medics gave her a moment.

Haltingly, she touched his still-warm face. "Oh, Francis,” she whispered and wiped a grimy spot off his forehead. She stroked his cheek one time before straightening his collar. Resting her palm on his chest, she waited, praying to feel movement overlooked by the EMTs.

"We probably need to take him, ma’am,” said one.

"Not yet you don’t,” she replied.

He moved aside, speaking in undertones to his partner.

Her hand roamed to another spot on Francis’s chest. Breathe, Francis. Please, for God’s sake, breathe. We need you. I need you.

But he didn’t.

"Ma’am?” asked the medic again.

Finally, she stepped back. They loaded him in the ambulance and shut the doors with little wasted motion.

The fire chief blocked her line of vision. "They should take you in, too, Callie. You inhaled a lot of water.”

Her "no” came in a raspy whisper. She cleared her throat and coughed. "No, I’m fine.”

Of course she was. Her heart worked. Francis’s didn’t.

"At least get someone to look at you, ma’am,” said her burly EMT. "Promise?”

Thank goodness he left her alone after a nod.

He entered the driver’s side of the ambulance, and the engine fired up. The van inched forward, easing through the people, leaving Callie standing in an opening to herself.

Sarah sat in a messy collapse where they had treated her. After a brief moment of relief at being saved, she’d become the cause of Francis’s death, embarrassed at the attention, turning emotionless at the sacrifice on her behalf. Judging from the scowls and murmured comments, much of the crowd appeared to somehow blame her too. Callie shoved her own similar instinctive thought aside. She’d check on Sarah—in a moment. Just not yet.

Thomas wandered over with Callie’s utility belt, an observer slapping him on the back along the way. "You okay, Callie?”

She nodded, afraid words would break her. Then she silently accepted her belt.

Water dripped down his neck off black hair two weeks past a trim. His uniform clung to him, and Callie saw the outline of his T-shirt beneath. He peered down close so nobody heard. "You tried.”

A heaving sigh from her roused another cough, and Thomas waited as she finished and spit. "Thanks, Thomas.” She sniffled, digging deep in her gut for strength, second-guessing if he held it against her that she was saved first... or in the way.

He patted her shoulder and walked off. Cars backed up both ways. He moved toward those arriving from the mainland and, waving in animated fashion, ordered drivers to quit gawking and get on toward the beach. Then the officer turned to those on the other side, and in semaphore fashion, motioned them to move as well. Someone he obviously knew asked to help, and Thomas accepted, sending him to the other side of the catastrophe to aid traffic control.

A drop trickled below her ear, and Callie shivered in spite of the heat. Wiping her cheek, she turned in time to watch the ambulance taillights vanish, her officer’s body disappearing around a slight bend down Highway 174. The ambulance driver didn’t have to flip the lights on, but he did. Red flashers bounced off the dense oak, myrtle, and palmetto greenery, taking Francis to the coroner in Walterboro.

If she remembered right, Francis was from Walterboro. He was going home.

She realized the mayor cherry-picked her because of her gender and family’s political reputation, but she’d accepted regardless the reason or conditions because she knew better than anyone on their radar how to run this department. She thought she had this.

Now Francis was dead... on her fledgling watch.

What if she hadn’t been first to arrive? What if Thomas had been able to simply save Francis?

Her attention shifted to the muddied bank, and she moved further off the road so traffic would go on by unimpeded... and people would lose interest in her.

"Ms. Morgan? I think you lost these.”

A firefighter passed her sunglasses to her. Then he tipped his head. "My condolences, ma’am.”

With a forced smile she returned the gesture. He left, and she ran a finger under each eye, sniffled again, and donned the glasses.

Marsh to her left, marsh to her right. The Atlantic rolled and churned a few hundred yards behind her as if reminding her to turn around; that Edisto Beach was her home. She wondered if things would’ve been different if Seabrook had shown up to work... had remained acting police chief.

People began to move along the causeway. Callie, however, shifted attention to the catalyst of the evening’s trauma. Sarah remained silent and placid on the road’s edge.

Re-buckling her utility belt, Callie strode toward the woman, repeatedly reminding herself that her father’s old mistress hadn’t caused Francis’s death.


 

 

Chapter 2

VEHICLES PASSED Callie both ways on the lone entrance to Edisto Beach, but even dank and sticky, she focused on Sarah Rosewood, the woman she’d come to call friend despite her old liaison with Callie’s father. She walked to the woman seated in a puddle of salt water, damp hair matted around her cheeks and neck, and reached down to assist the sixty-five-year-old to her feet, sniffing for alcohol. None Callie could tell, and she was good at telling, but the stench of briny mud could’ve overpowered anyone’s senses.

"Hey,” Callie started. "How are you—?”

"Here’s my card, Chief Morgan.” A man wormed his way in, hand outstretched. "In case you need a statement.”

His hair combed back, ruined loafers squeaking, a towel draped around his shoulders, the man who’d hauled Sarah out of the car appeared, a smartphone at the ready. "I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said, as if remembering what his mother taught him to say.

His accent was South Carolinian but more Midlands than Lowcountry. Red hair, the curls showing themselves even through the mud. Slacks, as if meeting someone rather than beachcombing. Thirty maybe. Callie’d never seen him before, but that could mean he was only an Edisto guest.

Clothes wet, Callie inserted the card in the dry belt without reading. "Appreciate your assistance.” She scanned the area. "Thomas?” She wanted to take Sarah’s accounting of the incident. Thomas could deal with the hero. Anyone could manage traffic.

Thomas looked her way. "Yeah, Chief.”

It was only the two of them today... without Francis. "Can you find someone to take your place so you can take a statement from this gentleman? Want me to call in Seabrook?”

Thomas returned a limp salute, sadness embedded in his manner. "No, I got this. Mike’s probably in Charleston anyway.”

The red-haired rescuer leaned in to Sarah. "Glad to see you’re all right, ma’am. That door was rough.”

"Yes, thank you,” Sarah said in a wavering voice.

He twisted to speak privately to Callie. "Don’t let the loss of a man send you back to the bottle. That was a fine effort you gave out there.”

She jerked around. "Pardon me?”

He bobbed his head knowingly once and headed toward Thomas.

What the hell?Callie watched hapless as the guy slid into the melee, like a snake slipping under a rock. She retrieved the card. Quincy Kinard, Associate Editor, The Middleton Post.

A damn reporter.

Even in eighty-degree heat, Sarah’s shivers increased. Callie needed to get her seated and hidden from everyone’s scrutiny, comfortable enough to answer questions before answers escaped her, or her story had the chance to change.

Setting Sarah in the patrol car’s backseat, Callie stooped beside the open door to a better level to speak, wincing once at the pain in her shoulder. She took a second to compartmentalize the afternoon’s events to maintain some emotional stability and cough aside the thickness in her throat. "What happened?” Callie asked softly, tucking the emergency blanket inside so it wouldn’t catch in the door. "This is hard, honey, and you’re rattled, but better to tell me than a strange officer.”

The accident took place barely outside Callie’s jurisdiction, and being fresh in the position she might step on a few toes taking prompt charge of this case, but she didn’t care if either the Highway Patrol or Colleton Sheriff’s Department minded. Francis was her man, not theirs. Sarah her neighbor, a friend.

Sarah Rosewood scanned the people, the emergency lights, the interior of the police car, and fear reached her eyes. She took shallow, inconsistent gasps. Callie recognized panic and caught herself swallowing her own. She glanced to the side to avoid sympathizing with Sarah so much, willing the pumping in her chest to ease off. A police chief with an anxiety attack was unacceptable. To distract herself, she inhaled deeply and stood, moving around to the front seat to reach inside and grab a notepad from the console. She already had Marie call the Highway Patrol. They’d arrive soon.

Shaking, Sarah clutched the blanket around her. "A deer jumped in front of me. I should’ve hit it, but I couldn’t. My foot stomped the brake to the floor. Nothing happened. Nothing! Just a sick feeling that I was out of control. Rather than cross the marsh and hit an oak, I turned into the water.”

A deer in broad daylight on a road bordered by water? While deer were common in the marsh, they were too wild and wise to prance on that short stretch of road in such a confined area. Especially during deer season which started in August in this part of the state. "A deer on the causeway?”

"Yes, a deer,” Sarah exclaimed, pointing toward her car. "A big doe.”

"Anyone see you?”

"Don’t remember any other cars, but I had things on my mind.”

Callie wrote hard, using the shorthand language she’d developed over the years. "What kind of things?”

"It’s personal.”

Callie stopped writing and stared at the drenched and disheveled woman in her backseat. "Maybe if I understood, the accident would make more sense. You’ve lived here twenty-odd years without incident. Suddenly your clothes are scattered over Scott Creek, your car underwater, and my officer dead. I think I’m entitled to hear what the hell you were thinking, Sarah.”

"Ask Ben.”

"I’ll certainly call your husband for you,” Callie replied, going back to her notes.

"And ask your mother.”

Her pen stopped. Her mother?

Sucking in, Sarah held it then let it loose, but her teeth chattered. "Anyway, next thing green water gushes up my windshield, coming through the cracks of my door. Have no idea what happened to the deer.”

Callie wondered more about her mother than the damn deer. She reached up and pulled the blanket tighter around Sarah. "Have you been having brake problems?”

"No.”

Callie figured Ben probably serviced the car. "Okay, then what happened?”

"Then suddenly that strange man’s there,” Sarah continued, "yelling at me to stay calm while he yanked at my door. The car moved... he... he... hauled me out the window... he...”

Bending over with a moan, emotion crackling into agony, Sarah touched forehead to her knees. Sobs tumbled out, dissolving the last of her strength. "I’m so sorry about Francis.”

Callie dammed the buildup in her own throat.

Touching Sarah’s back, kneading a fold of blanket material, Callie dialed the Rosewood house, hoping Ben would answer. He and his wife remained distant, processing the discovery of his wife’s long-term affair with Lawton Cantrell. Callie had been processing her father’s affair, too.

Callie tried phoning again. Surely Ben could garner enough loyalty from the dark depths of his pain to tend to his wife. Callie eyed the suitcase contents hung up in the reeds. Maybe he’d decided the time for understanding was over and kicked her out.

The phone rolled to voicemail again, and Callie left another message as she surveyed the scene. Bless him, Thomas stoically managed in wet clothes and drying mud to take Quincy Kinard’s statement. The reporter spoke animated, hands gyrating. Drama personified.

Traffic seemed to run smoothly, making Callie search for whomever kept it flowing without Thomas. Her heart warmed at the welcome sight of Colleton Deputy Don Raysor waving at cars. The rotund, demanding officer had clashed with her when she first set foot on the beach, his stereotypical machismo causing him to suspect her as the culprit in a crime spree. After taking several bullets to his vest in the midst of the case, one nicking him, he’d been on a leave of absence from his co-op arrangement with Edisto PD. He picked the best and worst day to come back, poor Francis’s death the keynote to what should have been a hearty welcome for Raysor at the station. She’d even welcome his derogatory woman-in-a-man’s-job remarks.

She got up to head in the big man’s direction. "Stay put, Sarah. I’ll be right back.”

But a force enveloped her from the side.

"Dear heavens, I was frightened into a tizzy seeing all this hoopla out here.” Five inches taller than Callie, Beverly Cantrell squeezed her daughter again.

They almost never touched.

Beverly’s longtime friend Promise Hollister stood at her side, her permanent fixture Tink peering out of the aqua straw tote over Promise’s shoulder. The woman never went anywhere without that Yorkie. The dog owned more accessorized purses than Callie had in her entire life.

In her mid-seventies, the white-headed Miss Promise had become Beverly’s ornament in her mayoral run in nearby Middleton. The biweekly friend over tea had evolved into a full-time advisor. As the widow of a beloved former South Carolina governor, Miss Promise not only made for great photo ops but also held a wealth of political knowledge.

Callie escaped the embrace. Her mother didn’t know Francis, understandably couldn’t care less about Sarah, but Sarah’s inference that Beverly Cantrell stirred enough trouble to cause this tragedy raised Callie’s ire. Beverly rarely earned the benefit of anyone’s doubt. "Sorry, but I can’t do this right now, Mother.”

Beverly reached to stroke her daughter’s cheek when her concern melted, her sharp focus aiming past her daughter into the crowd. "Wait, what’s he doing here?”

Callie turned. The reporter smiled wide in recognition then turned to answer one of Thomas’s questions. "He saved Sarah’s life,” she said.

Wrinkling her nose, Beverly gave him her back. "He appears wherever I go. A snoop, a busybody.”

Not unlike a politician to be concerned about the press. Callie studied Mr. Kinard acting bright-eyed, eager, and feigning empathy. Not to diminish his heroic behavior, she appreciated that as a journalist with a story dropped in his lap, he would welcome the attention, take names, and dig up information while he held the platform, and then go home and publish a story. Reporters... carpetbagging charlatans of the higher order.

If he lied in his zeal, she’d skin his hide. Thanks to her father’s six-term tenure as mayor of Middleton, Callie still owned stock in influence.

And she was not a fan of paparazzi.

She turned back to her mother, having no time for soapbox drama, his or hers. "Just head home. We need to talk, but I don’t have time this minute. This incident—”

"How’s Sarah?” Beverly asked, stooping a little to peek in the car. "I actually came to talk to her.”

In her mother’s wake, Callie leaned in and checked on Sarah as well, who turned aside from them both. "Well, not going to happen today,” Callie whispered, standing. "Since when do you talk to Daddy’s old mistress anyway? What’s going on between you two?”

Beverly straightened, ever vigilant about ears. "I thought we’d make amends.”

There were no amends to make. The affair between Beverly’s husband and Sarah Rosewood had been tolerated and that was that. At least that’s how Beverly had presented the situation to Callie. No love lost, no hatred on reserve. Ben Rosewood held the only grudge, and rightfully so. Beverly’s words rang too hollow.

"Sorry, but I have to go, Mother.”

"Darling—”

Callie blew out hard. "I lost one of my officers. A good one. Only twenty-six years old.”

The mild pout disappeared. "Oh, sorry, dear.”

"Drive safe on the way back. Watch for deer.”

With no adieu, Beverly and Miss Promise turned and picked their way through the horde.

Having neglected Sarah too long, and unable to reach Ben, Callie returned to the car with one more call to make. She’d speak to Raysor later.

But her call to Seabrook went to voicemail. Officer Mike Seabrook deserved to hear the news of Francis from her, not over the frequencies. "Mike? Call me. Please.” She hesitated over how to word the message. "It’s urgent.” Sighing, she slid the phone in her pocket.

A vee of pelicans coasted overhead, studying the unusual collection of humans where there should be none. A breeze blew across the marsh with a moist, salty aroma. Cars crawled across the causeway, adding gas fumes to the mix. One Highway Patrol officer arrived; the investigative team would appear shortly.

Her cruiser idled, air flowing for her passenger. Callie opened the back door and welcomed the cool blast. "I think that’s everything. Where do you want me to take you? Your house? A neighbor? Ms. Hanson’s probably home. Ben’s not answering.”

"Take me home,” Sarah replied.

Callie waved at Thomas that she was going, then leaned back in again. "Where’s Ben to be so unobtainable?”

"Have no idea.”

Callie hesitated at the clipped answer, then climbed in the driver’s seat, the uniform sticky but no longer wet. "You sure you’re okay? We promised the medics—”

"No,” she said. "No doctor.”

Callie studied her backseat passenger in the mirror. A quick whoop-whoop on the siren parted the people and cars. "The Highway Patrol will likely come by your place later.”

Sarah stared out the side window.

Callie turned onto Jungle Road. More than two hours had passed since the accident, Francis’s loss sinking in deeper. His death would devastate Edisto Beach. She blinked hard, knowing that eventually all the swallowing in the world wouldn’t hold back the tears.

Damn. Marie. Alone in the station, no doubt the poor woman caught it on the radio. More than any of the other officers, Francis loved most joking with her.

Callie turned into the Rosewood’s drive. "Need me to help you up the stairs?” she said, undoing her seatbelt.

"No, I’m fine. Let me out.”

"You have a key?”

"They saved my purse and pulled my keys from the ignition. I have the house key.”

Understandably, the woman was distraught, but clamming up seemed odd for someone normally sweet. Especially now they were alone without the gawkers. The trauma had her upset, or else something that happened beforehand consumed her attention... like Ben. Like Beverly.

While Beverly could spin facts and artfully twist her purpose, Callie saw no reason for her to fabricate a meeting with Sarah, yet the trunk’s contents revealed Sarah had no intentions of keeping the appointment. "Where were you headed?”

Sarah’s gaze darted to Callie then returned to the window. "Asheville.”

"Family?”

"Um, yes.”

But Callie knew of no family. Not that there wasn’t a distant third cousin or great-aunt somewhere, but in their numerous get-to-know-each-other chats over iced tea, Callie heard no talk of kin. Sarah’s niece Brea Jamison had died in front of Callie not long ago, killed at a beach house party gone bad. With her sister dead for years, Sarah spoke about how Brea had been her last relative. Callie couldn’t swear to whether that meant the last relative she cared about or the last trace of DNA, but the message seemed clear at the time.

Sarah wasn’t connecting glances. Callie’s sixth sense said she ran away instead of toward someone, enough to make her lie about her plans. Callie peered hard at the rearview mirror. "What are you afraid of, Sarah?”

Sarah’s eyes closed. "I want to go inside. I’m tired. I’m fine.”

Callie exited the cruiser and opened Sarah’s door. "No, you’re not fine. With nobody home—”

"Damn it, Callie, back off!” the woman yelled, pushing Callie aside as she scurried faster than someone her age should up the required two dozen stairs that kept most Edisto beach homes above storm surge level.

Grabbing the car door, Callie righted herself, jolted at the animosity from someone she viewed as a gentle soul. Watching Sarah sort through a soggy purse, Callie dutifully waited until Sarah opened the front door and disappeared.

No judging, she told herself. The poor woman couldn’t catch a break. She’d been a wreck since Callie’s father died, then barely two months later lost Brea. Luck sure as hell wasn’t cutting her any slack.

Only a mile and a half to the station, and Callie drove it slowly, wondering what she wasn’t being told, what she was missing about Sarah. What Beverly was up to.

The sun began its descent, and the brightness of the day had reverted to blues, grays, and tans of evening. A musky aroma filled the car, clinging to Callie’s uniform and the blanket Sarah left behind. Marie should have gone home, and Callie needed to change. But she bet the single lady hadn’t left the station, hoping that somebody on the force remembered she waited patiently at HQ. It’s what law enforcement did, administrative or otherwise. She deserved a moment of Callie’s attention.

Beverly had probably called Jeb already, unable to contain herself with such news at her fingertips. Callie would have to sift through whatever drama her mother told her son and clarify the truth, not that the reality wasn’t horrid enough.

But Beverly meeting with Sarah? Since when?

She needed to talk to both women and be blunt doing it. Callie continued replaying Sarah’s conversation, trying to configure the cause and effect of the accident.

Unable to squeeze any more out of what she knew, she radioed Deputy Raysor. "Hey, Don.”

"Yeah,” he said, a heavy huff blowing into the mic.

"I know.” She gave him a moment, taking one herself. "Need you to do something for me real quick while you’re at the scene.”

"Name it, doll,” he said, mindlessly using his old derogatory name for her that had softened into a joke.

"When they haul that car out, check the brake lines for me.”

"Seriously?”

The car was an old model. Sarah was overly secretive. Ben unavailable.

"For Francis, Don.”

He sighed. "Damn straight, Callie.”


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