Friday, November 25, 2011
Cathy Pickens, author of the Southern Fried mysteries, says—
Back Cover Copy...
I noticed a smudge of light on the horizon and a twinge of unease crept over me. Hilton Head Island snaked into the ocean about twenty miles south, as a pelican flies, and its neon glitz cast a yellow pall over the velvet blackness. Normally our resort has too many competing halogens to detect a neighbor’s light pollution.
Three lights in the Dolphin Club were out. It was too dark. Goosebumps raced up my arms. Something was hinky. Frozen in a cabana archway, I listened for any sound, some hint an intruder lurked in the shadows. Only gurgling water and a chorus of tree frogs broke the silence.
Sweeping my beam over the three-pool terrain, I strained to catch any movement. All was still. A second pass spotlighted an anomaly: clothing piled on a chair beside the Jacuzzi.
I walked closer, then paused as a shadowy blot rippled the surface of the water. It took a second to grasp someone floated face down. I sprinted. My feet made crunching noises as my shoes pulverized glass from the broken lamps.
Shit, shit, shit. Please don’t let him be dead.
I thought “him” even though it was impossible to tell if the body belonged to a man or woman. A shock of hair streamed from the submerged head. Pale bony shoulders gleamed in the moonlight. When I grabbed the body under the armpits and hoisted it over the hot tub’s lip, the man’s head lolled backward.
Stew Hartwell’s gray eyes were wide open, though sightless. I felt for a pulse. Nothing. I went on autopilot, pinching his nostrils shut, using two fingers to feel for any obstructions in his mouth.
I put my lips to his. They were warm. The Jacuzzi’s one-hundred-four-degree water had left them soft and yielding. I blew, paused, blew. A rhythm. Breathe, dammit, breathe, dammit, breathe.
Nothing. My heart raced.
I rolled Stew on his stomach and pounded his back to expel water in his lungs. I flipped him and attacked his chest with my fist, trying to kick-start his heart. I put my lips to his once more. His mouth felt clammy now. Still, I tried to force more of my ragged gasps into his unresponsive lungs.
Come on, breathe.
Nothing. After five minutes, I gave up. Sweat trickled down my back. My face was damp and I realized I was crying. My breath came in labored pants. Oh, Stew. I’m sorry.
Years ago, my husband, Jeff, struck up a friendship with Stew. Whenever we visited the island, the two got together—poker, golf, Sunday football on Stew’s big-screen. He was one of the good guys.
Now he’s dead. Like Jeff.
My hot breath—wasted breath—rose in white puffs and mingled with the steam escaping the bubbling cauldron. The cool ocean breeze quickly wicked all warmth away.
I pulled a radio from my pocket and called Gary, the security guard on the front gate. “It’s Marley Clark. I’m at the Dolphin. We have a drowning. I tried to revive him, but he’s gone. Call EMS anyway.”
“Who drowned?” Gary asked. “Is it a kid?”
I didn’t answer. Though it was three in the morning, some sleepless codger might be amusing himself, listening to a police scanner. It wasn’t rational, but I hesitated to say Stew’s name aloud. If I kept quiet, maybe he wouldn’t be dead.
“Sorry, Gary. I can’t talk now. Get someone to wake up Chief Dixon. The front entrance is wide open. I’ll stay with the body.”
Before Gary could ask more questions, I clicked the radio off.
Enough questions assaulted my brain. Stew was totally nude. What a way for your dead body to be discovered.
Of course, he was long past caring about decorum. That made the plume of sandy hair drifting from his head seem even sadder. The man let the baby-fine hair on one temple grow long for a classic comb-over. The result, like every comb-over, made me wonder if men who favored this camouflage technique shared a vampire’s aversion to mirrors.
What possessed you to go skinny-dipping alone in the middle of the night?
During my resuscitation attempts, I’d dragged Stew most of the way out of the hot tub. However, his hips still rested on the Jacuzzi’s curved ledge, and his legs dangled in the swirling water, giving them an eerie animation. His limp penis, withered from its extended submersion, showed no such life. It looked forlorn nested in its mat of brown pubic hair.
I was tempted to cover Stew. Provide him with some final dignity. But I knew better than to mess further with the scene. My attempts to resuscitate Stew had mucked things up enough. The unusual circumstances would certainly qualify the drowning as a suspicious death.
I looked away from Stew’s torso. His feet continued to bob and the obscene jig drew my attention to the hot tub’s water.
What the hell? I saw a carrot first. Orange and large, it bobbed to the surface by his toes. I watched in disbelief as the roiling water spit up celery stalks, whole onions and what looked like bay leaves. Gradually I realized a potpourri of vegetables simmered in the bubbling pot.
Sweet Jesus. What is this—a sick joke?
I looked wildly about to make sure I was alone. I’d been kneeling, and as I stumbled to my feet, I saw blood on the concrete. My own. Shards of broken glass protruded from my knees and blood soaked the khaki slacks of my guard uniform.
That’s when I noticed the towels, folded to form an arrow. It pointed to a patch of sand.
The Dolphin’s designers had inserted sand and palm oases to break up the sea of concrete that cradled the complex’s swimming pools. A crude message was scratched in the nearest greenery-and-dune pod.
Just one word: “STEWED.”
My mind went numb. Nothing made sense. Had some psycho drowned Stew just to make a gruesome pun?
I remembered angry-looking punctures on Stew’s back when I rolled him. Seizing his left shoulder, I eased his body up. Four marks embossed his pale back. Two close together, another two six inches away.
Nausea swept over me. I could barely imagine Stew’s terror if my hunch proved correct. The crimson pricks looked like fresh stun jabs. I’d seen similar marks on my own body. When the Dear Island security officers were issued Tasers, our training required a demonstration. I’d been “volunteered” and knew firsthand the pole-axed feeling of having my limbs turn to jelly, of being aware of everything yet having a total disconnect between mind and body. I shivered, wondering if Stew had been fully cognizant of his fate, his brain frantically screaming at unresponsive muscles as his killer prepared to drown him.
I lowered Stew’s shoulder, backed out of the crime scene along my original entry route, and prepared to intercept Chief Dixon and the EMS paramedics. They needed to understand the circumstances to avoid adding contaminants.
The wait would be brief. Dear Island’s only five miles long and one and one-half miles wide. It took less than ten minutes to drive between any two points. And, yes, Dear Island is spelled D-E-A-R. Pre-1970 maps showed it as Deer Island. That was before it succumbed to a developer’s spelling disorder or cuteness fetish. Having met my share of Lowcountry developers, either theory seemed plausible.
My manhandling of Stew’s body had drenched me. My teeth clattered like castanets, and my knees throbbed. Congealed blood plastered my trousers to my legs. I plucked slivers of broken glass from the fabric. Anything to keep from looking at Stew. I fast-walked in tight circles, rubbing my hands to conjure up heat.
Paramedic Bill O’Brien was the first to charge on the scene. “Where’s the victim?” he yelled as he hustled in my direction.
“He’s dead,” I answered. “No pulse. I tried mouth-to-mouth. Nothing.”
“I’ll give it a go anyway. Lead the way.”
“Okay but this isn’t a routine drowning. Stew Hartwell’s been murdered. We need to think about the crime scene.”
“Murdered? Are you sure?”
Bill’s tone telegraphed skepticism. Residents took smug pride in the fact that Dear Island didn’t have enough crime to warrant keeping statistics. There was the occasional theft as well as a smattering of complaints about inebriated idiots, usually vacationers or “tourons” in island speak. But a murder? Never.
Chief Dixon arrived in time to hear our exchange. “What in hell are you saying, Marley?” Dixon demanded.
We stood under the nearest functioning lamppost about twenty feet from Stew’s body. The pooled light haloed Dixon’s frizzy white hair, making him look like Ronald McDonald’s grizzled grandpa.
While I summed up the situation, Bill tiptoed to the steamy six-person Jacuzzi. As a paramedic, he was qualified to pronounce Stew dead. After doing so, he studied the body and pointed out some bruising around Stew’s wrists.
“Zip ties?” the chief wondered. “D’you suppose the killer tied his wrists while he was out for the count and cut ’em loose once he was dead?”
Bill nodded. “That’s my guess.”
Dixon rang the Hollis County Sheriff’s Department to say we needed help pronto.
The chief’s ruddy face looked more mottled than usual, hinting at a bout of drinking or elevated blood pressure. He shook his head, hawked one up, and started to spit before he thought better of it. “Jesus H. Christ, you think someone fried Stew with a stunner in order to drown him? That’s just dandy. Suppose that’ll make all our boys prime suspects.”
The same notion had crossed my mind—though I didn’t think of Dear’s security force as “our boys.” It was no secret the chief preferred to hire men. Yet he figured my military career trumped my gender, so he overlooked my inability to scratch my nuts with the rest of his boys.
I paced off fifteen feet and circled the Jacuzzi, scanning the barren concrete. “Chief, the killer didn’t use a Taser. Even civilian models eject those confetti-like markers that I.D. each weapon. Our murderer couldn’t have picked them all up. Fortunately, that rules our weapons out.”
“Eh? Speak up, will you?” An ex-Marine, Dixon blamed his poor hearing on close encounters with exploding shells. The counterfeit waterfall’s gurgling wasn’t helping him. “Who else packs stunners—just other cops, right?”
I raised my voice a notch. “Anyone willing to part with a few hundred bucks can buy stun guns or Tasers on the Internet. But I haven’t a clue about all the options.”
Dixon looked back at the body and cracked his knuckles. “Stew Hartwell. Who on earth would want to kill him?” The chief’s interest in the body seemed strictly clinical; someone else would have to mourn the loss.
Poor Stew. My stomach did another samba. Then a white-hot anger flared in my gut. Stew didn’t deserve to die like this—a gothic comic book ending.
“If only I’d patrolled this area sooner…”
“Shit, Marley, you couldn’t have saved him,” the chief said. “If you’d come earlier, you might be dead, too.”
Until the chief answered, I hadn’t realized I’d spoken aloud.
“You may have been one hot shot Army colonel, but even you can’t bring back the dead.”
Well, yes, once I could.
I was sixteen, a lifeguard. The boy was nine, chubby. When I hauled him from the depths, his lips were tinged with blue, as if the aqua water had dyed them. I breathed life into him. His fat cheeks turned from blue to pink like Mom’s hydrangeas after she added lime.
Life seemed effortless then. I could cheat death. No longer. The living slipped away.
I blinked away the vision to concentrate on Dixon’s monologue. “You know if someone hadn’t gotten cute, we might’ve figured he was an unlucky drunk who drowned ’cause he was three sheets to the wind.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Stew was known to knock back a few, and the hot tub sign is plastered with warnings for boozers. Guess the vegetables were meant to clue us in. Whoever killed Stew knew him, or at least his name.”
The churning murderer’s cauldron bubbled away without a conscience. How had the killer jimmied the timer to keep the Jacuzzi jets active? Tendrils of steam drifted from the super-sized hot tub.
“Jesus,” I muttered. “What kind of sicko would dream this up?”
Copyright © Linda Lovely 2011
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