Resort to Homicide
A MERRIFIELD MYSTERY NOVELLA
Resort to Homicide
Copyright © 2016 by Robin DeMarco Enterprises, Inc.
Cover design © 2016 by Golden Lark Publishing
Excerpt from Makeover for Murder Copyright © 2016 by Robin DeMarco Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. For information, please contact Golden Lark PublishingP.O. Box 1602Lockport, NY 14095-1602
This is a work of fiction. Names, character, places and incidents either are from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual individuals, living or deceased, businesses, establishments or events is entirely coincidental.
Golden Lark Publishing
P.O. Box 1602Lockport, New York 14095-1602
Wind howled outside, and the lights flickered as we sat in the sitting room of Rim Runners’ Resort after dinner. My brother, Luke, and his wife, Missy, had purchased the island that sat a quarter mile off of the coast of South Carolina, and had built their dream—an inclusive resort—on it. This weekend, they were hosting six couples, and me, as a sort of dry run before they opened their doors to paying customers.
I’d decided to take a vacation from my day-to-day job of writing mysteries, and spend some time with them before the arrival of their first child in September.
When I’d arrived at Rim Runners’ just before dinner, Luke had quickly introduced me to everyone. Since I was the only one here solo I basically got to watch the other seven couples while my own thoughts bounced around in my head. This weekend was a big deal for Luke and Missy, so I sat quietly in a chair close to the love seat where they reclined talking to their guests. In an effort to keep myself from falling asleep before 8 p.m., I looked around the room refreshing my memory of the other guests’ names.
On the small settee sat Kevin Adams. He was six-two, brown and brown, and was one of Luke’s oldest friends. Next to him was his wife, Donna. She looked like the proverbial scared rabbit. I’d put her at five-five with blue eyes that were almost always as wide as saucers and blonde hair that fell loosely to her shoulders.
In the two wing back chairs on the far wall sat the Moreno’s. Anthony Moreno was a tad under six foot, with black hair and deep blue eyes. He gave the sense of being somebody important. He was here with his much younger wife. I was pretty sure the raven haired Kim was no older than twenty-five compared to Tony’s nearly sixty.
Mike and Michelle Carlton sat at the small table near the big window playing cards with Jim and Theresa Parker. Mike was a tall thin man, whose wire framed bifocals concealed too much of his face. His wife was a thin red haired beauty, who looked exuberant and flush. Theresa had the same hair color, and her green eyes were the same almond shape and color as Michelle’s, but that’s where the similarities ended. Theresa was short, I’d guess barely five-foot, and was pleasantly plump. Jim was of average height, five-ten, and topped with a thick mound of ash blond hair.
Scott Campbell was bellied up to the small bar. He was a short man with a round belly and very thin gray hair who had accompanied his wife Beth on the trip to Rim Runners’. Beth was about the same height as her husband, and looked very chic. She was thin with a very short boy-cut hair.
Greg Nelson, stood in the corner scowling on his cell phone. His six-four frame towered over his petite wife Tammy. She wasn’t short, but at only five-four, he had her by a foot.
A short woman with a stern look on her face came to the entryway and beckoned someone to come over. Luke sighed and stood. When he noticed my expression, he said quietly, “She’s Pam Walters. She handles the employees for the most part.”
The lights flickered again, and everyone looked to the big window.
Luke strolled back in a moment later, chuckling slightly. “Well, looks like it’s going to be an interesting weekend. The national weather bureau has upgraded Anna to a category three hurricane.”
“Shouldn’t we head to the mainland?” Donna asked in a squeaky voice.
Luke grabbed a cup of coffee at the bar, “No. The actual storm is over a hundred miles out to sea. We’re just going to be getting a bit of rain and wind over the next thirty-six hours or so. Most likely there will be a bit of storm surge that’ll hit, but it won’t affect us. Besides, the waves are cresting over the bridge back to the mainland. It’s safer to just stay put.”
Three things happened at the same time.
Michelle checked her watch, Greg yelled, “I hate getting a text requesting an immediate return call only to get a voicemail!” and tossed his phone, and the lights went out.
“Great,” Luke muttered. “Okay, folks, the resort has an emergency generator that should kick on in a moment.” A flame flickered across the room, and grew, illuminating Luke, now carrying a candle. He walked around the room igniting other candles while most people went back to their conversations.
It took less than a minute before the entire room was bathed in the soft glow of candle light.
Luke stepped out of the room on the pretense of checking the status of the generator, which hadn’t yet kicked on.
My sister-in-law sidled up beside me. “If it wasn’t for everyone else, this would be very romantic.”
I glared at her in the light. “It would take more than a bit of light for this to be romantic for me,” I said very softly.
Missy reached out and touched my arm. “I’m sorry about Rob. He was a good man.”
Even though it had been just over two years since my husband had been killed in action over in Afghanistan, the mention of his name brought back the memories.
I closed my eyes and tried to control my breathing while I stroked Scooter’s back in an attempt to control my emotions. Luke and Missy had given me the Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy as an early birthday gift shortly after I had arrived this evening. When the little ball of fur climbed into my lap, my heart had melted. It had taken only seconds for me to realize that Scooter was definitely going to be an important key to getting my life back on track. The sound of a door slamming jarred me back and had Scooter jumping off my lap.
“The bloody thing’s not going to work. I’m going to have to head up to the control booth at the north point, and see if I can figure out what in heaven’s name is going on,” Luke stated. He paused, “Laura, would you come with me? I could use the help.”
I shrugged, barely capable of forming words yet. “You’re lucky you’re my favorite brother. Let’s go.” I finally managed.
He poked my side, “Actually, I’m your only brother.”
He was also the only family I had left.
We grabbed our raincoats from the pegs by the door, and lumbered out into the downpour.
“How are you enjoying your stay so far?” Luke asked as we bounced along the road toward the north point.
“I’ve been on your little island for exactly,” I consulted my watch and did the calculation. “Seven hours thirty six minutes. I haven’t really gotten to meet your other guests. They seem to be an eclectic grouping of people. Anyway, from what I’ve seen thus far, you’ve got yourself a pretty good set up. I still can’t believe that you found a way to buy an entire island to build your resort on.”
Luke smiled. “I got lucky. Found the island, and then was able to get some investors who believed in what we could do here, and voila! I’m on the road to attaining my dream of having my own high-end resort.
“I’m hoping that everything goes well with Missy and the baby, and that we can officially open before Labor Day.”
“Since I didn’t get the tour when I got here, what do you have planned?”
“We’ve got a stable with a dozen horses and an experienced guide to lead trail walks around the perimeter of the island. I recruited Deb from Tennessee. You remember her, right? Well, when things got moving here, I looked her up and she came out.
“They’ve almost finished the eighteen-hole golf course, and we have tennis courts as well as the pool. Missy and I have been toying with the idea of hiring an activities director to coordinate things.”
“If things aren’t ready, and you’re not officially open, why do you have the other guests here? I mean, I’m family. I came here to be with you and Missy for a bit before the baby comes. But you’ve got several other guests that are here for the weekend. Wouldn’t it be better to wait until everything was done before having the dry run?”
We pulled up near the far end of the island. “We’ve got to go the rest of the way on foot. Only about a hundred yards.” Luke said.
I grimaced, pulled the hood of my raincoat tight, and stepped into the howling wind.
Luke used a diving light to illuminate the path leading to the turbine tower. The massive blades made an odd noise as they twirled in the strong winds.
Entering the shack at the base of the tower, Luke pulled back his hood. “Can you hold this and shine it over at the panel when I’m ready?” he asked.
Taking the light, I tried again. “You never answered my other question, Luke. If you’re not ready to open, why do you have guests here?”
“The investors demanded it,” he stated clearly as he pulled out tools from a cabinet hanging on the back wall. “In order for me to finance this place, I needed to have quite a bit of capital. Missy and I took our savings, and made the initial bid. We sold the house back in Virginia and took everything from that and added into the mix. But, we were still short.
“I ended up going to a meeting that put entrepreneurs in touch with prospective investors. I was able to sell my idea and vision, and gained six new partners. With their resources, I was able to get a mortgage to cover the cost of the island itself and the restoration of the buildings.
“When we had a quarterly meeting, in June, they asked if they could come out for a weekend to give the place a dry run, so-to-speak. I figured, sure why not? Never thought we’d get this kind of weather.”
He motioned for me to follow him through the next door. As he pulled the door open, an acrid odor assaulted our noses.
On impulse, I scanned the room with the light.
Black burn marks marred the white walls and wires stuck out of the main panel box. Glancing up, I noticed there was shrapnel of various shapes and sizes embedded in the ceiling tiles.
Luke stuttered, “What the heck? It blew up! How? This shouldn’t be able to happen.”
The light fell on a small item lying on the floor.
I nudged it with my toe. “Part of a cell phone, that’s badly burned,” I said.
Luke’s head came up. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t think that this was an accident. Somebody wanted the power to be out tonight and blew the control panel up.”
“Come on, Luke, there’s nothing that we can do right now,” I said. “We’ve got to leave this for the police.”
“The police?” he asked in a wavering voice. “Can’t you handle it? You were a cop.”
“This was a deliberate act. Someone rigged your control panel so that it would explode, taking out all power along with the generator. This is a crime scene that needs to have police investigators going over it. And that doesn’t include me. I’m not a cop any longer. The only mysteries I solve now-a-days are the ones that I make up in my books.”
Luke’s shoulders drooped. “What am I going to tell every one else?
I pulled him out of the room leaving the door open. “We’re going to tell them that nothing we tried worked out here to get it back up and running, and that we’re going to have to wait until the storm is over before we can bring out an expert to fix this.
“Is there any place else on the island that would have a generator that we could snag so that we can restore some power to the main house?”
Luke thought for a minute. “Yeah. Missy and I were living out of our camper for a few weeks while they finished the interior restoration. I’ve got a small gas powered generator there. Oh, I forgot, there’s an antique monster out behind the house, but I don’t think it’s run in years.”
“Let’s go,” I said pulling him out of the shack towards the truck.
It took nearly ten minutes to go less than a mile to where Luke stored his camper. Thirty minutes later, we were pulling back up to the main building.
Luke walked into the sitting room first to let everyone know what was going on. It was empty except for Missy who was sitting in a rocking chair knitting little booties.
She looked up at us. “You’re back, but the power’s not on.”
Luke crossed to her, “We’ve got a problem, Missy. Somebody blew the control panel and the main generator to bits,” he said quietly to ensure that anyone unseen couldn’t hear.
Missy gasped. “What do you mean?”
“Everything in the shack is pretty much in pieces. Laura found something that she said was important, and that we need to call the police.”
I nodded from the door way as I stood waiting for the officer on duty to transfer me to the right person.
“What’ll we do?” Missy asked.
Luke shrugged. “We brought the generator up from the camper. That will get lights and essential appliances back on line. Tomorrow, Mark and I will see about that old monstrosity out back. Even then, we’ll be roughing it for the next few days.”
Finished with my call I walked over to them. “I left a message for a Chief O’Brien. Hopefully we’ll hear back from him fairly soon. In any case, they informed me that they wouldn’t be able to send anyone out here until after the storm passes. Apparently, the surf is getting close to eight feet, which means that the waves are breaking over your little bridge.”
“I know O’Brien. Met him a couple of times at some town functions over the last year or so. I might have mentioned my favorite, ah, famous sister to him a time or two,” Luke said with a chuckle. “He’s a good guy.”
It took Luke and I nearly twenty minutes to get the generator hooked up. Once power was running to a few selected outlets, I curled up in one of the wing back chairs. I needed time to think. I may no longer be a badge-carrying member of the NYPD, but my training was still intact.
Pulling a notebook out of the little table, I wrote down the facts as best as I could recall them. I had to approximate the time that we’d found the control room, but I knew I would be within a few minutes. I’d checked my watch on the trip there, and it hadn’t taken us much longer to reach the turbine. I noted where each person was in the sitting room. A quick check of the clock that sat on the bookcase in the sitting room helped to determine when the power went out.
Once power was up, Missy asked Linda Carlson, one of the housekeeping staff, to let everyone know that the sitting room had power. Over the next fifteen minutes, almost everyone came back down. The only person missing was Anthony, but his wife didn’t seem too concerned.
“So what happened to that big generator that we purchased to put in to keep the lights on, Luke?” Michelle asked.
“Not sure,” Luke responded warily. “We checked everything, but nothing we did made any difference. We’ve already called the dealer, but they won’t be able to get anyone out here until the weather clears.”
“Nice to know that everything works so well,” Greg sneered. “I told you that we’d be better off going with the major service from the mainland.”
Missy spoke up this time. “Part of what we wanted with this resort was a green facility. And by putting up the turbine, not only are we independent of the grid, but we can sell the excess to the power company, which brings in some revenue each month.”
“Greg,” Kevin said. “We went through all of this in the past. Just because your family owns a major percentage of the electrical provider in the area, there is no reason for this resort to kowtow to your whims. When we,” he used his hands to draw a circle in the air, “the board, went over everything, this is the solution that made the most sense. It helps to keep the cost of operation lower, provides the resort with monthly income, provided major tax breaks and theoretically, it should be more reliable than having a half-mile line laid under the bridge.”
The conversation continued to be bounced around the group.
I sat in the chair, with my feet tucked and Scooter on my lap, watching the dynamics. Luke had never told me who the actual board members were, but since only Kevin, Greg, Michelle, Jim and Beth were adding to the conversation with Missy and Luke, I concluded that these were most likely the board members. Since Kim wasn’t paying any attention, to the goings-on, I guessed that it was Anthony from that pairing who was on the board.
I grabbed a book from the shelf and returned to my chair. This gave me the cover I wanted; I was able to monitor the conversation unobtrusively.
Things quieted down about fifteen minutes later. I wondered how I was going to get Luke alone to get him to confirm my observations. After watching the interactions among the group, I was fairly confident that I knew what role each member played on the team.
“Has anyone heard from Tony?” Kim asked looking up from her phone.
There was a chorus of no’s from around the room.
Missy took a seat near Kim and asked, “What’s up?”
Kim shook her head. “Just after Luke and—is it your sister-in-law?—it doesn’t really matter. Just after they left, Tony got a text and said he needed to make a phone call. I didn’t worry at first, but I figured that it’s been about half an hour, so I just tried his phone. It rang five times and then went to voice mail.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Tony’s always been wheeling and dealing with people. He seems to be doing fairly well in the investment game. Perhaps he just needed to lie down for a bit,” Scott suggested before taking another belt of whiskey.
Missy pressed a button on the house phone. “Mark, one of our guest, Mr. Moreno, hasn’t come into the sitting room. Would you please check his room and be sure that he’s all right? Hmm-mmm. Thank you.”
She turned to Kim. “There you go, Kim. Mark’s going to check in on Tony for you and make sure that everything is all right.”
The young woman smiled in thanks and went back to staring at her phone.
Everyone jumped at the odd buzzing sound. Missy picked up the receiver. “Yes? What do mean? Oh. Well, that’s sure a mess. Yes, please let Linda know. It might be best to call in Pam, Ken and Ron as well. Thank you, Mark.”
As Missy hung up the phone, all eyes were on her. “Mark said that Mr. Moreno is not in his room, and that there appears to…have been some kind of altercation.”
Kim popped out of her chair, “What do you mean an altercation?”
“It appears as though some furniture was knocked over, and some clothing was strewn about the room.”
Kim sank into the chair, covering her face with her hands and sobbing.
Kevin spoke up, “Luke? Can you get us a few flashlights? I think we should split up and search the grounds as well.”
“I’ve already asked the staff to begin that process as well,” Missy said. “But I’m sure it will go much faster with everyone working together.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were searching the house for any sign of Anthony Moreno. It had been decided by Michelle that it would be best for us to work in teams of two. The couples opted to work together, and I paired up with Luke, while Missy sat in the sitting room with Kim.
“Tell me about Mr. Moreno, Luke,” I said as we were descending into one of the cellars.
“I don’t really know that much about him, honestly,” Luke said. “When I knew that I was going to need funding, I mentioned it to Kevin. I figured with his business contacts and all, he’d have an idea on where to go for it. Kev mentioned there was a symposium for local investors coming up, and invited me to go along.
“He e-mailed me some paper work, and then coached me over the phone as I filled it out. At the symposium, I was given the opportunity to talk to about fifty potential investors. I showed them the business plan that I had and answered a bunch of questions.
“About a week later, I was asked to meet with a group of people. We talked about several points that they wanted clarification on. In the end, we decided to become partners in the project. Missy and I combined own fifty-one percent of the resort. I’m the Chief Executive Officer, and Missy is the Chief Financial Officer for now. The others put up various amounts that gave us the total that we were looking for.
“As for Tony—I believe that he put up about a quarter of a million for his share, the same as Kevin did. He’s one of the larger shareholders in Rim Runners’. Between him and Kev, they hold thirty percent of the remaining stock. But, I’ve only met him three times before this weekend.”
I thought about that as we made our way through the dark cellar. Moreno owned roughly a fifteen percent share of this resort. “How much of percentage do the others hold?” I asked.
“As I said, Kevin owns about fifteen percent, same as Tony. Michelle, Greg and Jim each own a five percent share. Beth holds the last four percent.”
“Do you think that Beth is upset only having four percent?” I tried.
“I don’t think so. She was friendly with one of the others. Greg, I think. Anyway, Beth wasn’t at the initial meeting. Pretty sure that it was Greg who contacted her about the investment. She came to the second meeting, but didn’t want to commit immediately, saying she needed to talk it over with her partner. After a few days, she called said they’d thought about it and would like to invest. When I told her how much was left, she agreed immediately.”
We were in the third cellar, one that had likely been used for storing vegetables when the building was first built. Luke and Missy had filled the space with several shelves worth of supplies. We were looking between sacks of flour and sugar when the scream came from outside. Luke and I scrambled to the nearest set of stairs.
“What do you think that scream meant?” Luke asked taking the stairs two at a time.
“If I had to guess, I think that they’ve found Mr. Moreno. And something tells me he’s not doing too well.”
We came up in the kitchen, which was currently empty. Through the windows, we could see several bobbing lights moving away from the house. Going out the kitchen door, we started running towards the group that was assembling.
“It looks like they’re over by the maintenance shed,” Luke huffed out.”
“What do you keep there?” I asked keeping stride, knowing that I was going to pay dearly for the run tomorrow.
“We’ve got a couple of small tractors. I keep a tool set out there for when I’m working on one of them.”
The maintenance shed was a not much more than a twenty by twenty box. A garage door opened into the main yard. A pair of small Kubota tractors stood at the ready, each with mower attachments.
Missy was pulling Kim out of the group of onlookers. Kim was about doubled over, her mouth opened wide, but no sound coming out and her fist rubbing her eyes.
“What is it?” Luke asked as we came into the crowd.
“Tony,” was all Kevin said.
I took a quick glance at all of the other people standing there. There were the five couples; in each the husband was comforting his wife. The men were all staring at the body, while most of the women had their faces pressed into their husbands’ shoulders. Trying to keep the image out, I guessed.
Missy had pulled Kim back towards the house. Luke was alone in the front of the crowd of onlookers. I recognized the trail instructor, Deb, who stood towards the back close to Pam. There were four others that I didn’t know standing close by. A woman who looked to be in her sixties was leaning on a sturdy man, while two other men stood with their heads down and their hands in their pockets.
More than a decade of training took over.
“Okay, folks. It’s wet out here, and by everyone being here, we’re liable to do more harm than good. Now I need to know, did anybody touch the body?”
“Who put you in charge?” Greg demanded.
“Greg,” Luke said turning to face the man. “Laura was a homicide detective in New York before she left the force and began writing. She’ll know what to do right now.”
The man of the couple that I didn’t know nodded. “I did. When Linda found him, I went over to check for a pulse. He was already dead.”
“You are?” I asked.
“Mark. Mark Carlson. My wife and I take care of housekeeping, maintenance and grounds. Linda is the one who found him.”
“Did you move the body in any way, or was this how you found him?”
Mark shook his head. “No, ma’am. He was stretched out like he is now. I approached him from over here, and checked his pulse on his neck. I didn’t move the body.”
“Okay, let’s get everyone back into the house. Luke, I’m going to need a list of everyone who is currently at the resort, either as guest or employee.” And, I thought, a whole lot of luck.
While Luke headed to the house with the others, I pulled out my cell phone. It took about four minutes for me to get connected to the person that I thought would be best able to help me.
“Chief O’Brien,” the gravely voice said.
“Chief? This is Laura Merrifield. I’m currently standing in the maintenance shed at Rim Runners’ Resort. We’ve got a body, tentatively identified as Anthony Moreno.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” O’Brien’s voice sounded strained. “You do realize that the entire area is under a hurricane warning, right? The storm surge is expected to be nine feet, and that little spit of concrete that your brother calls a bridge out to that God-forsaken island is less than three feet above the water. There is no way that I can get anybody out there to do anything about a dead body until maybe Monday.”
“Monday?” I choked. That was three days away. Besides, everyone here would be gone on Monday. I knew what I was going to have to do, but it didn’t make it sit any better. “Chief, I’m positive that Anthony Moreno was murdered. As you’ve so eloquently pointed out, getting on or off of this island right now is impossible. That means that whoever killed Moreno is one of those here at the resort. I’d,” I sucked in a deep breath, hoping to gain some courage before I plunged onward. “I’d be willing to take charge of the crime scene, get the photos, secure the body in some type of cold storage, and begin interviewing those that are here.”
I had to wait through his laughing fit.
“Listen, Ms. Merrifield, I know that you write about crime and you seem to have a fairly good imagination, but this ain’t no place for a fiction writer.”
“Chief O’Brien, you may know my bio that is on the back of my novels, but you don’t know me. I spent six years in uniform for the NYPD, followed by nearly eight more as a detective in homicide. If you want to take some time to make a few phone calls, I’d recommend Lieutenant Carl Weaver, he’s out of the thirty-second precinct. Give him a call and see if what I say holds up. I’m giving you a chance to have eyes and ears on this case now, less than an hour after it occurred rather than starting in seventy-two.”
When he spoke, there was no doubt that he was frustrated. “I’ll make those calls. If, and that’s a big if, I’m satisfied, I’ll call you back at this number, and we’ll discuss how we’re going to proceed with this case.”
Gray clouds covered the entire sky the next morning, giving everything an eerie overcast. When combined with the rain that continued to pelt down hard and the brutal winds, being anywhere but indoors was about insane.
I sat at the dining room table, my head perched sleepily on my fist. I was trying to brace myself in more than one way right now.
The other guests began arriving and taking their places at the table. When Luke and Missy came in, I knew that it was time to start.
“Okay,” I said between mouthfuls of toast. “Everyone here knows what happened last night. I need to bring you up to date on where things stand presently.
“Chief O’Brien made some calls last night to check out my credentials. Since the weather precludes him from getting anybody here, and my credentials held up, he gave me the go-ahead from his office to handle this case. Everything that I do is being video recorded, so I need to use an assistant. I’ve already recruited Luke to be that assistant.”
“Don’t you think that’s showing a bit of nepotism, Ms. Merrifield?” Michelle demanded. When everyone looked to her, she continued. “Mike and I called our attorney. We are not happy about this whole thing. And now we find out that you’re going to have your brother be the assistant? Smells like a cover up to me.”
I held up my hand. I really didn’t want to do this, but I needed to establish a few things.
“Mrs. Carter, let me answer everything in order. Do I see this as nepotism? Absolutely not. I chose Luke for one reason. He hadn’t been out of my sight last night since the power went out and he was with me until the body was found. Now,” I paused and looked around the table. “Since he is the only one that I am sure of, besides myself, that didn’t kill Anthony Moreno, at this time, he’s the only one I can trust.
Forks clattered to the table and it seemed that everyone mumbled. Three of the guests, Kevin, James and Scott, sat stoic. The only movement that I saw out of these three was Kevin nodding his head.
“I don’t think I can find fault with your reasoning to pick your brother, Ms. Merrifield. However, I think it would be best if all of the data that you find is shared with everyone of us,” Beth said.
“No,” I answered quickly. “At this point, everyone who is on this island is a suspect. It is definitely not good practice to give the person who committed this act the evidence that will be used to convict them.”
“What do you mean that we’re all suspects? I find your claim preposterous,” Mike said loudly. “If you don’t retract that statement, I’ll be getting in touch with my lawyer, and we’ll sue you for libel.”
I let out a breath slowly, counting to ten before I began my reply.
“Mr. Carter, I am not bending to your, or anyone else’s, will. Before you say anything else, let me lay out a few facts. At this point, we know that Anthony Moreno was killed out in the maintenance shed last night. I’d guess most likely between the hours of eight and ten. When my brother and I left to check on the generator at seven-fifty five, he was alive. His body was found around ten-ten.
“Due to the storm, no one has been able to get on or off of this island, so that implies that whomever murdered Moreno is someone that is sitting in this house right now. Those are facts, not libel.
“She’s right, Mike,” Greg nodded. “You can try, but you’re going to be wasting your money.”
Mike’s face turned bright red. “So you’re saying we should just sit here and let some broad who spins murder tales for a living consider us suspects? I don’t think so!”
His wife placed her hand over his wrist. “Mike, I think the best thing is to call Carmichael and let him know the situation. But, we’ll have to trust him on this, I think.”
The others at the table nodded slowly. They didn’t like what was before them, but they had no way to change it.
I swallowed and continued on. “Luke and I began to process the scene last night. Everything has been documented by using a good digital camera and my iPad.
“We spent nearly an hour collecting evidence from around Moreno’s body. After documenting the scene, we sent the photos to Chief O’Brien. With his okay, we collected everything into plastic zip-lock bags and have secured them in a temporary evidence locker. Following protocol, the body has been secured to protect it and the evidence until the coroner can come to claim it.”
I didn’t think they really needed, or wanted, to know that Tony was currently wrapped in a layer of paper followed by a tarp, or that we’d moved the body into the cold storage unit behind the house. It wasn’t being used yet, but had been running for several days prior to the electric being cut, so hopefully it would preserve him until Monday.
“It is my understanding that Luke has already talked to his head guy, and they are working on getting another gas powered generator running this morning. With some luck, that will provide power to charge phones, computers and what-have-you.
“As the morning goes on, I’m going to need to speak to each of you individually. If you don’t want to speak without your attorney, we’ll set up a time that we can Skype them to keep everything on the up-and-up.”
Dishes were being dropped into the plastic tub that Linda had set on the buffet. I stood in the corner watching the other guests head out of the dining room, wondering whom I should talk to first.
“Ah, Ms. Merrifield?” a baritone voice asked from my right.
I turned to look into the face of a stout, gray haired man. “Yes?”
“I, um, I’m Scott Campbell. Was wondering if I could speak with you for a brief minute before you got too tied up with your detecting today?”
“I supposed we could do that. Let me grab a cup of tea, and we can take a turn around the music room. Will that work?”
“That would be splendid,” he said joining the crowd.
I watched him saunter away before I nodded my head beckoning Luke.
“What’s up?” Luke asked when he got close.
“Wanted to keep you in the loop. I’m going to be meeting with your Mr. Campbell in a few minutes. Anything that I should know?”
Luke thought about it briefly. “Nothing that I can think of. Again, I’ve only met him once before this weekend. He’s married to one of the investors, ah, Beth, pretty sure it’s Beth Campbell.”
“Okay, “ I said dropping my tea bag into the garbage. “I guess it’s time for me to brush off some old skills and see what Mr. Campbell wants.”
“Laura,” Luke said almost in a whisper. “Missy and I are counting on you to get this resolved. If we loose this—” he said motioning to the whole house. “We’re done. Please be careful, but please solve this quickly.”
I gave his hand a comforting squeeze before I nodded and headed to the music room.
The music room, I could only guess, would have originally been a large veranda that was on the back of the main house. At some point, one of the past owners had enclosed it mainly with glass, giving it almost a greenhouse feeling. But that wasn’t quite right, either. Walking in, I could automatically tell that even though there were many windows, this area didn’t see much in the way of sunlight or natural warmth.
A baby grand piano sat tucked into one of the corners of the room and a shelf of sheet music ran full length under one complete wall of windows. I sat at the piano, closed my eyes and let my fingers run over the keys to some forgotten song while my mind escape for a few minutes.
“Oh, Ms. Merrifield. I didn’t know that you played,” Scott Campbell’s voice echoed in the smallish room.
“Only for my own amusement,” I replied, stopping and looking at him.
“Well, I want to thank you for seeing me. It’s just this whole business with Moreno is a bit offsetting, if you know what I mean.”
“I imagine so. Now, is there something particular that you wished for me to know?”
“I don’t know how aware you were of Tony’s activities. But in the past year, I know that he’s been named in several different legal suits. And almost all of them have been by people that are on this current board.”
That had my attention. I hadn’t really started looking at Moreno’s finances yet. It was a point that Chief O’Brien and I were still trying to work out.
“I had no idea on that, Mr. Campbell. Do you happen to know who the parties are that named him?”
“Well, Beth and I brought a suit about four months ago regarding a land dispute. Greg, ah, that’d be Gregory Nelson, had filed against him for embezzling money from a different investment they were involved with. And finally, it’s rumored that his wife, Kim, put in a claim for damages that he supposedly caused.”
I quickly scribbled notes on a blank sheet of paper. “Thank you, Mr. Campbell. I’ll look at these as soon as possible.”
After he left, I looked at the notes. The first thing that I needed was a background check on Anthony Moreno.
Scooter watched me from his perch on the bed while I was pacing the floor in my small room, pondering over the facts that I’d been able to establish. Scott Campbell had hinted at Anthony Moreno being individually involved in at least three legal suits.
When I called Chief O’Brien and gave him the information, he sighed and dutifully said that he’d run it through. An hour later, I was listening to the rain pounding out a very dramatic staccato rhythm on the roof, playing with a few imaginary lists in my head all while I tried to keep from going stir-crazy.
I turned when someone knocked on my door. “Yes?” I called out.
“Hey, Laura? It’s me, Missy. Do you have a few minutes?”
When your pregnant sister-in-law asks if you have a few minutes, it’s often worthwhile to take a few and help her out.
I changed my pacing route enough so that it went by the door and let her in.
“What’s up?” I asked as I resumed my previous activity.
Missy sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing her hand over her swollen belly. “I feel all twisted up inside about what’s happening. I mean, I know that that man was murdered, but from what you said at breakfast, we’re all suspects. I’m worried about the stress that this is causing, and how it’s going to affect the baby.”
My mind instantly became schizophrenic; one part had to protect my family while the other had to look at everyone with distrust.
“Missy,” I said taking a seat next to her. “I don’t think that you’re responsible for this. But I need to play it straight. The best thing that you can do right now is to play it straight with me. There’s nothing to be gained by lying about anything. And trying to hide anything isn’t likely to help either, as it will usually be worked over and brought out in fairly short order.
“Now, why don’t you tell me what happened last night after Luke and I went to look at the generator?”
Missy nodded thoughtfully. “Okay, I’ve always trusted you, Laura. Now I need to trust you with everything.
“After you and Luke headed out, the remainder of the guests sat in the sitting room. Ah,” she closed her eyes in concentration. “I think it was Theresa who asked about maybe starting a fire. Her husband, James, and Mike, whom I’m pretty sure is her brother-in-law, asked me if it was okay. I didn’t care, so I showed them where we had wood piled behind the house. We didn’t really have much left, being so late in the season. But if it gave off a little light and made the others comfortable, then it was fine with me.
“When I came back into the room, the heavy-set man, Scott I believe is his name, had gone over and was leaning on the edge of the bar, talking to his wife. Whispering, actually now that I think about it. He stood upright the moment that I walked back into the room.
“Greg was complaining into his cell phone about the inconsistent electrical system that we have here. He’s still very upset with our decision to try to keep Rim Runners’ off of the main grid. After hearing what Luke said ya’ll found up at the turbine, I wonder if Greg had anything to do with that. It’d be just like him to try and stir up problems where there aren’t any.”
“Missy,” I interrupted her. “Have you known this Greg for a while?”
“I don’t know him well. But I’ve known about him for nearly fifteen years. I went to school with his youngest sister. She always complained about how pushy Greg was. After their dad died, Greg took it upon himself to keep the younger siblings in line. Their mom didn’t push back much, so Greg acted almost like a dictator in the house. Now, to give him the credit, which he is due, he did get two younger brothers and his two sisters through high school and college. That was a huge responsibility right there.”
I simply nodded and jotted a few more notes down. “What else was happening when you came back in?” I prompted.
Missy thought about it again. “Tony and his wife were still sitting in the chairs. They were leaning close together, talking between themselves. I kind of thought it was romantic. They were holding hands and smiling.
“I picked up my knitting and started working on the booties for the beast,” she said tapping her belly. “It was only a matter of minutes later when the couples began heading out. Mike and James had just come in with the wood before Michelle and Theresa led them off. Greg and Tammy went next, as I recall. Once Tony and Kim headed up, Scott and Beth were right behind them. It sounded as though they might have been talking on the way up the stairs, but nothing that I could discern.
“You and Luke were back thirty minutes later. By the time that Luke got the camp generator up and running and we got everyone back down, it was a just about nine thirty. From there you know the rest.”
She was right. I did know most of the rest. Tony Moreno wasn’t there when everyone reassembled. Somewhere between the time that he and his wife left, if my figuring was right, around 8:30 p.m., and the time that we found him, he’d ended up getting hit in the head with a heavy object and was very dead by 10:10 p.m..
“What are you thinking about?” Missy asked softly.
When my eyes came up to look at her, she grinned. “I’m sorry. I never got to see the cop part of you working before. It’s an intense look,” she said.
“I’m just trying to put the timeline together, and figure out who I need to talk to next.”
“Am I, am I in the clear now?” she asked.
“Look, Missy,” I confided. “ I’m pretty sure that you didn’t kill Moreno. But in order to make Chief O’Brien happy, I need to make sure that everything is corroborated. But in my book, the way that Moreno was murdered, I don’t think a woman who is nearly eight months pregnant could do it.
“It would be a heck of a lot easier if we could get an actual time of death. But the way things are, the best we’ve got is a range. So, I’ll keep digging until I uncover something that points to one individual.
“Are you going to be talking to the others too?” Missy asked as she stood.
“Yeah. I’m going to try and approach it conversationally for now. Maybe if we start talking about little things, somebody will add more to it and fill in a bigger part of the picture.”
I watched my sister-in-law waddle down the hall, hoping that something would jump out for me and give me the answer that I was looking for. Realizing that it wasn’t going to happen, I knew the best thing for me right now was a little head clearing time.
The rain was steady and cold, so I was thankful that I’d put a sweatshirt on under my raincoat before I’d headed out. I totally dislike being rude, but I needed the time alone, and if my brother found out, he’d insist on accompanying me.
I slipped carefully around the maintenance shed where Tony’s body had been found last night.
It looked different in the muted light. Nowhere near as intimidating or foreboding.
Now it was just a simple metal structure, with the open door facing mostly south. Small scrubby bushes surrounded the entrance. I made my way over to the side farthest away from the house and looked.
I pulled out my iPhone and used it as a camera and took pictures of the broken branch on the tree. Now, I realize that during a near miss of a hurricane, the winds may damage branches. But from everything that I’ve seen, when that happens, it occurs on more than one branch. The single twig that was still hanging by the bark showed a fracture where somebody had bent the still green wood out of the way.
Looking at the ground behind the bush, I could just make out the impression of a shoe.
Luck was with me, as I noticed another identical impression not too far away. It may not have been made of breadcrumbs, but I’ll take an easy to follow trail any day.
Kim was sitting alone at the dining room table when I walked through in search of a mid-morning snack. I grabbed a muffin from the buffet along with a cup of tea before moving to the table. “Mind if I join you?” I asked
“”What?” her head shot up. Her eyes were blotchy and red from crying, yet wide with surprise. “I’m sorry. I guess I was really lost in my own thoughts,” she said motioning me to join her.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss, Mrs. Moreno,” I said pulling up my chair. “Is there anything that I can do to help?”
She stared at me, almost as if she was judging me on something before she’d decide how to move forward. “Luke says you used to be a cop.”
I swallowed the bite of muffin that I was working on so I could answer. “Yes, I was. I spent eight years working on the force.”
“So why’d you quit?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “When my husband was killed in Afghanistan, I couldn’t concentrate enough to do justice for the people that I was supposed to be serving. I took a leave of absence, and found that I preferred the writing of mysteries to actually solving them. Why do you ask?”
She nodded as if I’d given her the answer she’s been looking for.
“Then it’s apt that you’re the one who’s going to end up working for me. Help me find out who did this to my sweet Tony. Please, I’m begging you. One widow to another.”
I reached across the table, and took her hand. “I promise you that I will use every available resource to do that. Perhaps you could help me. I need to understand Mr. Moreno’s background so I can see all of the pieces.”
Sorrow was etched on her face, but she nodded her head. “I guess I can see why all of the rumors that are flying around are things you need to know about.” She folded the handkerchief that she’d been using to dap at her eyes, straightened in her chair and began.
“I’m not Tony’s first wife. Not even his second, but it was true love that brought us together. Tony’d been married to Edith when they were both in their early twenties. She ran off and left him high and dry. Tony found out that she’d been sleeping with some guy she worked with, and they decided to run off together.
“It took Tony a couple of years to get that mess cleared up. And I mean legally cleared up. He went through the steps and had their marriage annulled, spent a lot of time with the lawyers making sure that they got things right. That’s the kind of man he is.” Her eyes glistened with fresh tears. “I mean, the kind of man he was.”
She took out the handkerchief again using it to blow her nose. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled.
“It’s still a shock to you and you’re trying to deal with it the best that you can,” I offered.
She smiled slightly. “Tony met Sandy almost ten years after Edith ran off. They dated for a while, ended up getting married. They were together for twelve years and had three kids together. Bobby is the oldest, and then there are the twins, Gabby and Abby.
“Tony had started his company the year after Bobby was born. It was taking longer than Sandy wanted for him to have a decent income. She wanted him to close the business and go to work for her uncle, but he didn’t want to. She kept threatening him that she was going to leave, and eventually she did.
“Tony came in one night, and found the house totally empty. She cleaned out everything. All of the furniture, the appliances, even the food. All she’d left him was a note and a pile of bills that she’d neglected to pay.
“Tony tried to work things out, but in the end, Sandy got her way, filing for divorce. Tony did what was right by the kids, but it was never good enough for Sandy. Tony made sure that he was there for all of the big events in the kids’ lives, even though Sandy tried to prevent it. She’d move and wouldn’t let him know, or she’d change plans on him and wouldn’t be where she’d told him to meet the kids. She was a nasty woman. Still is as far as I can tell.”
“How old were the children?” I asked.
“Oh, geesh. Let me think for a minute. When Sandy left Tony, Bobby had just turned eleven which would have made the girls about nine I guess.”
“How did you meet Mr. Moreno?” I asked.
“I came to work at Moreno Investments straight out of college. I was a business major there, and landed a prime position. I met Tony for the first time three weeks later. I’d been running through some paperwork that my predecessor had left hanging. I found a letter of interest from one of the over-seas clients who was looking for farmland.
“I knew that Tony had been talking to the Campbell’s about buying Beth’s family’s old farm. Apparently, they’d grown tobacco there for many years, but the latest generation didn’t have anyone who wanted to go into agriculture in any way.
“When Beth’s mama passed, the farm came to her. She was living two hundred miles away from it. Somehow, the connection was made between Tony and Beth that led to the discussion of the purchase of the farm.
“When I brought the letter of interest to Tony, and showed him how the Campbell farm fit almost perfectly, he was ecstatic. He called Oshu, our client, and got a letter of intent about the farm. It took a little more than a week, and he’d made the deal with the Campbell’s. Oshu had walked around with Tony on the last visit, and was more than satisfied. When they closed at the end of the month, Tony basically did two deals at once. He had the lawyers draw up the paperwork that put Oshu representing the interest. After they closed, Tony took me out to dinner as a celebration. The company had netted over six million from that one deal.
“Over dinner, we talked and one thing led to another. We started dating. That was in the fall, and we got married the next summer. Our wedding was nice. I had Gabby and Abby as my two maids of honor, and Bobby was Tony’s best man.”
“Mrs. Moreno, there is no tactful way to ask these next few questions, so please forgive me. How do you compare in age to your step-children?”
She barked out a laugh that made me jump. “I was twenty-two when I married Tony. At that time, the twins were twenty-four, and Bobby was twenty-six.”
“How is your relationship with them?”
“Surprisingly good. They could see that their dad was happy with me. Bobby said he’d never seen his dad smile like he did with me.” Her face dissolved into a new round of tears, which she mopped up. Choking, she continued, “I know that having a step-mom who is younger than the kids would normally be a problem. But we’d found a way to be friends. I’m hoping that they’ll…they’ll stand by me and continue to be there for me now. When I talked to Bobby this morning, he promised me that we were still family. It’s all I’ve got to hold onto right now.”
“Mrs. Moreno, I spoke to Mr. Campbell this morning. He implied that right now, there were several suits against your husband, including one from him and Mrs. Campbell and one from you.”
“From me? Why would I want to sue Tony? That wouldn’t make—”
Her hands went over her mouth, “Oh, God. Gabby mentioned something about her mother being furious when Tony changed his will after we were married. Originally, she was going to be given a percentage of the company. But Tony changed that so that the three kids and I would get the entire company. All of us get a quarter share.”
“And with each of you having a quarter share, Sandy Moreno no longer gets any compensation, which she apparently thinks she deserves. What about the Campbell’s?”
Kim balled her fists. “They think that Tony double crossed them. They feel that he should have paid them the full amount that he was paid for the sale of the farm. It didn’t matter that they’re the ones who set the original price. It didn’t matter that it was his previous work with this particular client that opened the doors. They just see that he pocketed six million that they wanted.”
Her phone rang then, and she glanced at the screen. “It’s the kids. Bobby was meeting with the girls and we’re going to have a conference call about what we do next. I’ve got to take this. Sorry.”
“Thank you for your time,” I said as she rose and hurried out of the room.
Snagging another muffin I pondered what I’d learned about the relationship between Kim and the Moreno clan. It seemed that she and Tony had been truly in love, and that she’d worked hard to make the step-family thing work.
I pulled out my notebook and put my observations in order. It still didn’t answer my questions about the suits against Tony Moreno, but I had a better idea of what kind of man Tony had apparently been. He made sure things were handled properly, and had taken care of his kids to the extent that he had been allowed.
Now I needed to think about how this all fit with what I’d found on my excursion outside. The only thing that I was sure of now, was that it was time for me to see a lady about a horse.
Debra Burke was a sturdy woman who was dressed in riding pants and boots topped with a gray rain slicker. According to Luke, she was the one who ran the stables on Rim Runners’. Since this is where the trail from the maintenance shed had led me, I figured this would be a good place to start. So I shrugged into my rain gear and prepared to brave the torrential downpour from the hurricane.
I saw Debra as I was approaching the main stables as she was pitching used hay out of one of the large open doors. She must have seen me about the same time since she stopped and stood with the pitchfork in her hand.
“What do you want, Laura? Ain’t you got sense enough to stay inside when it’s raining?” she grumbled.
“Well, hello to you too, Deb,” I tried to sound cheerful. “My brother said you’d be out here, so I figured it’d be easier to start here.”
She glared at me, dropped her shoulders and sighed. “Well, if you’ve gotta come talk to me, let’s at least go in out of the rain,” she said, this time the heavy southern accent cutting through.
I’d known Deb for just about five years. When Rob had been home between deployments, we’d decided to take a vacation to see Luke and Missy. One of the things that we’d done was to take a guided horse tour through part of the Smokey Mountains. Deb was our guide for the trip. We’d had some good times then, and when I came back to mourn Rob, she’d come around several times bringing me chocolate and giving me an extra shoulder to cry on. She knew what I was going through. She’d lost her Dave in Vietnam.
I tried putting my relation with Deb out of my mind and followed her. Weaving around the bales of hay that were scattered on the floor in the center of the aisle, she led me to a small office. She slipped off her slicker and squeezed in behind the desk.
I pulled my raincoat off as well, and took the seat across from her.
“I don’t know what you want me to tell you, Laura. I’ve known Luke for nearly ten years, was thrilled to death when he and Missy asked me to come down and run the stables. Kind of a dream for me.”
Her face tightened. “Turned into a nightmare last night, though,” she confided.
“Deb, I hate to ask, but I’ve got a few questions. Did you cut through from the back doors of the stables to the maintenance shed anytime in the last few days?”
“Why the heck would I do that?” she asked. “It’d be a whole lot faster just going straight from the front door here to the front door there.” She stared at me with her brown eyes. “Now, since I know you, and know what you used to do, the only reason you’d ask that kind of question would be if someone had done just that. So, what do you figure?”
Again, Deb had found a way to lighten my mood a bit. “I found evidence that somebody walked from the back door here to the far side of the maintenance shed. Just trying to pin down movements and activities.”
“Now why would somebody go sneaking round that way for?” Deb asked.
“What’s in the back of the stables?” I offered.
“There ain’t much. Just some old tack, and the…hmmm, I wonder,” she said pushing to her feet. “We’ve got some tools that Luke picked up at some auction. They were specialized equine tools, so we threw them in the back room. I haven’t really gone through them yet. But let’s go take a look.”
I dropped my coat and followed her to the back of the stable. It was kind of unnerving. I felt as if twelve pair of eyes were following me, and several of the occupants neighed out a warning as we passed through.
Debra was reaching out for the door, when my eye caught the scratch on the handle.
“Hold on, Deb,” I said pulling out my phone. I took a picture of the lock and studied the scratches. “They’re fresh. Probably only a few days old at most,” I said.
Turning back to Deb, “Have you ever locked yourself out of this room and needed to try and pick it to get in?”
She laughed loud enough that the dozen horses whinnied with her.
I pressed a few buttons on my phone. “Luke? Yeah, listen, I’m with Deb by the back stock room in the stables. Somebody’s at a minimum attempted to pick the lock. Deb says that the stuff that was stored in here is stuff that you found at an auction.”
“Yeah,” Luke’s voice came through the phone. “What do we do next, Laura?”
“Well, honey, you’d better see if you can scrounge up a list of what you bought at that auction and get it out here to me. Then we’re going to see if anything is missing.”
“I’ll be there in ten. The list is in the office file box. I’ll grab it on my way.”
The phone clicked off. I peered through the window at the mountain of stuff that was strewn along the counters. “Deb, do you think they sacked this room first?”
“Laura, you know your brother’s about as fast as a three-legged turtle climbing an icy slope when it comes to putting things away. Even though this is my place of business, he said he was going to sort through all that junk. That’s about all that’s there. He’s got stuff strewn all over in here and, like I said, I haven’t really gone through it yet, but nothing’s caught my eye as attention worthy. I haven’t noticed a single item in that lot that I’d keep.”
I thought about that for a minute. Deb was right on about Luke’s tenacity and pace. Then another thought occurred to me.
“Hey, Deb? Have any of the other guests come out to the stables since they’ve been here?”
“Well, yeah. That snooty one, ah, Michelle I think the name was, came out with her sister, ah, Teri, or something like that. Never would have placed those two as friends let alone relatives. They came out, took two of the horses out for a ride around the island. They took Zeus and Toby. Both could ride well.
“Then let’s see, Kevin and Donna came out later that afternoon and took Zoe and Kong out. Other than that, I don’t know of anybody else. And if they were playing with my horses, I’d know.”
Luke sloshed in from the rain. “Geez, it’s miserable out there,” he said as he wove through the aisle. Most of the horses ignored him. Only the chestnut colored filly that he’d owned for the last five years demanded his attention, nearly breaking out of the stall when he started to walk past.
“What? Do you want a piece of an apple?” Luke said.
As if in answer, the horse moved her head up and down, and then stretched trying to reach him. He took an apple from his pocket, held it up in front of the horse. “Do I get anything for it?” he asked playfully.
The filly brushed his cheek with hers before nuzzling her nose into his hair. He rubbed her neck and fed her the apple. “We’ll go for a ride in a bit,” he said stepping back into the aisle.
“Think it may be the first time I’ve ever seen you seduced by a female, Luke. You used to like doing the seducing as I remember from our teenaged years,” I teased.
“There are days, she’s my favorite girl. And if either of you ever tell Missy that, I’ll call you both liars,” he said with a laugh. We enjoyed the mood for a few seconds before what we needed to do took over.
“I’ve got the list right here,” he said. “I don’t know how much this is going to help us, but let’s go.”
Deb unlocked the door and we headed in.
It took us nearly two hours before we were able to identify three items that were missing from the lot. “Any idea where the antique hoof pick, the ball peen hammer, or—what was it?—a manure scoop, or something? Any idea where they ended up?” I asked.
“None,” Luke replied.
“Any idea on if anything was valuable or not?” I tried.
Both Luke and Debra shook their heads. “I took some pictures, hoping that I’d get a chance to see if they were worth anything. Never got around to it though,” Luke said.
I mulled my options over for a moment. “Why don’t we saddle two of the horses, and take a ride. After lunch you can get me the pictures and we can see if anything rings for us?”
“I like that idea,” Luke said leading the way back out.
I had a sneaky suspicion that we were going to find one or more of the missing items tied to Tony Moreno. All I knew for sure was that the situation stunk.
I wandered around my room while I talked to O’Brien on the phone. “Look, Chief, I’m trying to get to the bottom of this as fast as I can. I’ve got some puzzles pieces that I need to be able to see the shape of, but I’m not in a position to do the research.”
“Sheez, Merrifield. I’m letting you get your fingers all through this one. I’ll be able take care of things in two days. Why not just cool your jets, stay inside catch a couple of movies on cable or something.”
I ground my teeth. “We’ve been over this before, Chief O’Brien. We both know that the murderer is someone who is here right now on this island. I know that you’ve stretched quite a bit to let me do the initial investigation. But,” I qualified, “we’ve sent you every photo, every piece of video that we shot and every detail I’ve ferreted out. I’m not looking to try and take the glory away from your fine department. But right now, you can’t get in, and the weather is destroying the evidence. So, unless you really want someone to walk on this, I need you to run the backgrounds on the list that I gave you. I don’t have access to the necessary databases. Your office does.”
O’Brien sighed loudly. “You know, Merrifield, when we actually meet for the first time in person on Monday, I might decide to charge you with being a pain in my butt.
“Anyway, I’ll have one of the guys run your list for you and we can e-mail the results to you. Anything else?”
“Yes. I was thinking that the situation with the electric turbine might be related.”
“Hold on. Just hold on, Merrifield. You’re trying to connect the fact that something went wrong with your brother’s wind turbine and one of his guests getting killed? The two events aren’t even in the same proximity. Why do you think there might be a connection?”
“Whoever did Moreno wanted, or let’s say needed, the dark to get a chance to take him out unseen. Rim Runners’ has a series of outdoor lights as well as security cameras that patrol the entire compound. Those circuits were hardwired into the main generator, so that if anything happened to the turbine, they would still have power.
“Now, before you say anything about this being a crime of opportunity, I’d like to point out that everyone of the board members, all of whom are here, had knowledge of the system and it’s failsafe. When the turbine was sabotaged, they made darn sure to take out the generator as well.”
I could hear him grinding his teeth for what had to be thirty seconds. “What do you want from me, now?”
“When I was on the job, I worked homicide, not explosives. Is there someone who can shoot me a quick glossary of what to look for to determine what was used?”
O’Brien let out a long sigh. “I’ll pass it along. Jensen should be able to get you what you’re looking for. But honestly, it most likely won’t be until the morning.”
“That’ll work for me. Thanks, Chief.” I didn’t hear his response, only the receiver being dropped onto the phone.
Since I was going to have to wait until the morning to do anything with respect to the destroyed turbine and generator, I decided that I’d spend a little time going through the photos that Luke and I’d shot at the crime scene.
The only one that was remotely helpful to me was one of Tony Moreno. Looking carefully at the contusions on his head, shoulders, and hands, I was able to guess at the basic shape of the murder weapon. A quick cross-reference to the tools that we’d identified as missing from the stable storeroom, and it sure looked like Moreno had been beaten with the manure scoop. Now, I needed to find it.
Looking out the window, I ignored the rain that was still pummeling everything in the area. My focus was on two yellow raincoats that were heading towards the south end of the island, and the beach there.
I didn’t figure that they were looking for a rain-tan, but their body language struck me as if something intense was being discussed. Grabbing a set of binoculars that Luke had given me for bird watching, I tried to figure out who the two figures were.
Both were about the same height, and judging from the height of the shrubs they were near, I would put them at about 5’5”. That didn’t help me much. I’d have to go to plan B, whatever that was.
I headed down to the main sitting room and found it occupied by several other guests.
“Oh, look. It’s Dr. Holmes,” Michelle quipped to Theresa as I entered the room.
“Shelly, that’d be Mr. Holmes. It was Watson who was the doctor,” Theresa responded before they both enjoyed a good laugh.
Their husbands sat, eyes glued to a television set watching some baseball game with Greg, totally ignoring them and, as far as I could tell, me. In the far other corner, Kevin, Donna, Tammy and Kim were huddled around a small table playing some kind of board game.
I watched the foursome for a few minutes. It was evident from the behavior that they were all trying to help Kim cope with what had happened, and keep her mind off the fact that nothing could be done right now.
Detouring through the dining room for a cookie, I headed towards the mudroom to gear up before sneaking out the back door.
“Where are you off to now?” Luke asked as he came in dripping.
“I think I’ve narrowed the murder weapon down. Thought I’d go take along the path to see if anybody might have tossed it into the brush some where along the way. I figure the killer isn’t going to want it hanging around.”
“If it was me,” Luke stated as he hung up his coat, “I’d have thrown the bloody thing off of the cliff into the Atlantic. Less likely to find it.”
“I’ve thought about that. With the way the wind’s blowing, it’d be possible that it would have gotten hung up on the rocks before it got to the water’s edge. That would pose a problem for whoever threw it. They couldn’t risk going down to it, but they couldn’t leave it there.
“Now, I can’t count on whoever did this as being stupid, but I can sure hope for it,” I said with a smile.
Luke reached out and touched my arm. “Laura. I need to thank you for stepping in on this. You’re supposed to be on vacation, but you’re running some weird investigation. The only positive is that the rest of the board is kind of just hanging out. Nobody’s freaking out about Tony’s death, because they know that you’re on it.”
I nodded. “Somebody should be freaking out because I’m on it. I’m going to nail this guy and nail him good.”
Luke smiled. “Happy hunting, then.”
Slogging through the rain, I made my way towards the maintenance shed, keeping my eyes alert for any signs that someone had done a little off-trail hiking. But nothing caught my eye.
Once at the shed, I veered away towards the eastern coast of the island. It took only minutes to walk the few hundred yards, but by the time I’d reached the coast, my legs were screaming. An interesting feature of Rim Runners’, was that while the west coast was at sea level, the entire east coast was a two-hundred fifty-foot high rock cliff that dropped off into the Atlantic.
Here the view was breathtaking. Looking to sea, I could make out the variations in the clouds that defined hurricane Anna. From this distance, she didn’t look all that menacing, but I tried to remember that I was standing on solid ground. As a category-3 storm, she’d be churning up the waters a few hundred miles off quite well.
I stood and looked at the turbulent gray waters swirling below me, and the rocks that jutted out from the water where the cliff met the ocean.
Wind pushed me back from the edge. Like the rain, the sixty-mile per hour wind was a leftover from the hurricane. In the inner regions of the island, the building, and the hills themselves, gave some protection from the wind. Here at the edge of the cliff, there was nothing to do that.
I pulled the binoculars from my pocket and did my best to search the immediate coast for any sign of what I suspected was the murder weapon.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find anything. Now I had a dilemma: did I move down the coast and continue, or just head back to the house?
Closing my eyes, I tried to think of last night. What was the weather like? Which way were the winds blowing? And, what would be the logical choice of where to go if I’d just killed someone.
Getting away from the scene would be paramount, as would getting rid of the weapon. But where would you go on an island? One that was, well not swarming with others, but still had a count near twenty.
My feet started moving me north along the coast. I tried not to think about what I was doing, but rather tried to think how someone would have moved last night. I could almost see it now.
The rain obscured most of the visibility, but you could still see more than 100 yards ahead. The light was dim, with almost a rose hue to it from the interaction of the clouds and sunlight. Running back towards the house, would have increased the opportunity of being seen, so you’d run away. That would bring you to the coast and the cliffs.
“What would happen if you weren’t expecting the cliffs?” I asked aloud.
The only answer that came back was from a songbird that was braving the rain.
I spun in a slow circle to take in the whole of where I was standing. The tree line was only a yard or two from where I was, and the edge of the cliff was only a few feet the other direction. “If I was running from something, I’d probably be looking over my shoulder to see if anybody is following me. Not thinking about what’s ahead,” I orated. “If I tripped at this range either from surprise or from a physical object, whatever I had would go sailing over the edge. Not exactly what I would have planned,” I told my friendly songbird.
Twenty feet ahead, I saw an indent in the underbrush where something large had laid down. Walking up, I could see that just a foot back, an exposed root snaked up ready to snare an unsuspecting person’s foot.
I pulled out my phone, and took a picture of the site as well as what appeared to be the imprint of where a hand had slammed into soft mud.
Pressing my brother’s number I peered over the edge as far as I dared.
“Laura? What’s up?” Luke answered.
“I may have something here. I’m on the coast, top of the cliffs. I’ve got an area that looks like somebody took a tumble here. I’m trying to see how I can peer over the edge to see if there is anything down there.”
“You really think that you’re going to find the murder weapon on the rocks?” he asked dryly.
“You never know. I can say that the wind is strong enough that it pushed me back a few steps, and the indentation of where this person went down is nearly three yards from the brink. Figure if he goes down, the scoop goes flying, it doesn’t have to clear the edge by a lot, but it becomes virtually impossible to retrieve.”
“Okay, okay, okay. I’ll be out there in about ten. You’re going to owe me for this, Laura,” Luke said before the phone cut off.
I went back to studying the imprint while I was waiting. Setting my phone on a nearby tree limb I turned it to record video.
“Pacing off the external dimensions, this indentation is just under two yards long and about,” I paused while I turned and took one step. “And about a foot-and-a-half wide,” I said for the record.
Bending down near the handprint, I placed my own over it. “The hand print left in the mud is larger than my hand. This would lead me to believe that the killer is most likely one of the men.”
I heard the snap of a branch and turned quickly, expecting to see Luke.
“Well, what are you doing out here, Ms. Merrifield?”
“Mr. Carlson, isn’t it?” I searched my memory for the name. “Yes. Mark Carlson, you’re with building and grounds, correct?”
He smiled at me as he wiped rain away from his eyes. “Yes, but please, just call me Mark. Anyway, Luke radioed me and asked that I meet him out here. He said he needed help with something.”
“Actually,” I admitted, “I’m waiting for Luke. He’s coming to help me with a project I guess you could call it.”
A muted curse came from the trees. “Laura? Am I anywhere close?”
“Keep walking, Luke. I can almost see you.” I shouted back.
When Luke emerged, the knees of his pants were muddy and soaked. “Couldn’t you have found a better place to do this?” he asked.
“I didn’t pick the spot, remember?”
“So what’s the plan, Luke?” Mark asked.
“Not sure. Before we go any further, Laura, show me what we’re dealing with.”
I hesitated, not really wanting to show anyone that I couldn’t be sure wasn’t involved with Moreno’s death what I’d found. But, I didn’t really have much of a choice since Luke asked Mark to join him.
“As I said, I found a mark where it looks like someone went down hard,” I said pointing to the ground.
“Hmmm,” Luke said scratching his chin. “Not sure I’d have seen that from this. However, since I just made one very similar back a few yards, I’m going to guess that you’re on the right track. Mark, we need to find a way to look over the edge of this here cliff.”
“Ya’ll trying to win some award for being crazy? We got a bleeding hurricane pounding the snot out of us, and ya’ll want to look over the edge of a cliff?” Mark grumbled as he looked around. “I reckon that we could tie off some ropes to these trees and you could repel down a ways if you really wanted to,” he said rubbing his face.
The reflection of his watch caught my attention. “Do you have any mirrors? You know, like shop mirrors that extend out a ways so you can inspect hard-to-get-at areas?” I asked.
Luke and Mark looked at me stunned.
“Well, shoot. Sure we got us a couple of them. They’d be back in the maintenance shed though. And Luke said we weren’t supposed to go in there until you said it was okay, ma’am.” Mark said.
“I’ve documented the scene already, Mark. Could you get me two of those inspection mirrors?”
Mark nodded. “I can do that. Okay, Luke?”
With Luke’s agreement, he was off, and Luke and I were alone.
“So what else do you have here?” he asked.
“The evidence has given me some real good clues. Right now I think I’ve got it down to two suspects.”
“Really? Who?” Luke demanded.
“I’m not giving names yet. I want to verify a few things.”
It took Mark the better part of ten minutes to return with the inspection mirrors. “Here you go, Ms. Merrifield,” he said holding them out to me.
Taking the mirrors, I lay down in the soft mud. “Hold my feet, Luke, just in case,” I ordered. Extending my left hand and the mirror over the edge I looked at the reflection. “Think I just found your manure scoop, Luke,” I said.
“Now what?” he asked helping me to my feet.
“I think it’s time we go back to the house, and have a good old group discussion around the table.”
“Are you going to arrest anybody?” Luke suddenly asked. “I mean, if you are, we’re going to have to find somewhere to put them while we wait for the sheriff.”
“No. I’m just going to let them stew over what I know. I’m pretty sure that when O’Brien gets the information that I’m looking for back to me, I’ll be able to tie this up nice and pretty for him. So, why don’t we head back? I’m in the mood for a slow roasted turkey.”
I woke to an almost pleasant dawn. Looking out the window, I could see the trees still bending dangerously in the beginning daylight. It took me a moment to realize why everything looked weird. For the first time in days, there was no rain.
I turned towards the door when there was a soft rap on it.
“Laura?” Missy whispered loudly from the other side.
I sighed. So much for some alone time watching the sun come up.
I opened the door and ogled at my sister-in-law and the tray that she was carrying. “What do you think you’re doing carrying all that?” I asked, taking the tray from her.
She followed me in. “We haven’t had much time to just visit, you and I. I know that you’re an early morning riser, so I thought that we could share a cup of tea.”
“Are you allowed to have tea at this stage?” I asked motioning her to one of the desk chairs in the room.
“I’ve got decaffeinated for me, Earl Grey for you, as I know your preferences.”
I poured out and we sat looking at each other in silence for a long moment.
“So,” I said, “What happened after I left dinner last night?”
I almost thought she was going to spit up her tea as she tried to laugh with her lips tightly closed.
“You always did have impeccable timing,” Missy finally said. “Well, after you let on that you had a few suspects that you were going to be turning over to Chief O’Brien tomorrow and then simply walked away, it turned into a free-for-all. Mike Carter stormed out into the rain with his trusty phone, Jim Parker was bickering with Michelle Carter about which lawyer they should call. Greg and Tammy were having their own private argument,” her voice trailed off. “I wonder if they’re separating.”
She looked up through her eyelashes, looking slightly embarrassed. “They’ve had issues for years according to Beth. I know for a fact that they’ve been at each other since they got here. And then last night, she stormed off to their room and he requested a separate room for the duration of their stay.
“Scott Campbell sat pretty much alone at the bar, drinking heavily. To the point that Luke had to cut him off. I’m guessing that he’s not going to have a nice head today.
“The rest of the group, with the exception of Kim, Kevin and Donna, were gathered around speculating on who you were going to turn over to the chief. As far as I could determine, they’ve got it narrowed down to Greg and Michael. Either right?” she asked quickly.
“I can’t comment further on an on-going investigation,” I replied. “What were Kim, Kevin and Donna doing?” When she glared at me I continued before she could say anything. “I can’t remember how long Luke and Kevin have known each other. It seems that they’ve been causing trouble together since they were in elementary school. But I need to have a complete picture.”
“I hate spying on friends,” she blew out a long breath. “They went into the dining room. I only caught snippets of the conversation, as I walked between rooms for coffee or chocolates or what not. The first thing I caught from them was Kevin and Donna helping Kim pick out some things for the funeral. The next time I went through, Kim was asking if Kevin knew anybody who might be able to serve as a mentor. Apparently she and her step-kids are going to be partners in the business, but none of them have too much experience. It sounded like she was trying to get a plan together that would help them all through this.”
“Sensible,” I remarked, remembering my conversation with Kim the day before. “She may have been much younger than Tony, but she seems determined to make things work.”
Missy nodded as she sipped her tea thoughtfully. “Yeah. That sounds about right. I haven’t known her long, but from what I’ve seen, she’s always ready and willing to learn and not afraid to get her hands a bit dirty in the process.”
By the time Missy had left I was feeling energized and began to plot out my plan for the day. I had two people that I considered suspects, and would have loved to find a way to tail both of them, but I was alone on that front.
Not totally, I realized. I could ask Luke to keep an eye on one of them, but could he do it without them knowing that he was watching? After a quick internal debate, I opted to err on the side of caution and be sure we didn’t spook these two.
After breakfast, almost everyone decided to brave the winds and get out of the main house for a while. Greg was the only exception here, grumbling to himself that he’d rather sit comfortably inside rather than take the risk of being blown off of the island.
Taking the opportunity, I made my way over to see Deb in the stables.
“You back again, Merrifield?” she teased.
“Actually, I thought that I’d take one of these guys out for a little ride today.”
“Why don’t you take Sonja? I think she’d like the time today. She’s a little spirited, our Sonja, but she’s got a sweet heart and will go all day.”
“Sounds like just the horse I’m looking for,” I answered following Deb into the barn.
“Okay, girl, we’re going to walk around the island as much as we can handle today,” I cooed into the mare’s ear as we trotted along the path.
It took less than five minutes before I saw the first group of people. Mike, Michelle, Jim and Theresa were all trying their hand at horseshoes. “They look more like tennis people to me,” I said to Sonja. “Must be the wind’s too strong. Let’s go find the next group.”
We’d ended up covering the complete western shore of the island and were making the turn near the still turbine when my phone rang.
“Merrifield? O’Brien. The boys put in a little overtime yesterday with all of the fun we’ve been having thanks to Anna. Anyhow, they got the information that you requested, so I’m letting you know that it’s on its way.”
“Thanks chief. Anything stand out on any of the background searches?” I asked.
I could hear pages flipping. “Got a few hits. Your pal Nelson seems like a real sweetheart. He’s got nearly a dozen assault charges in his file. Most of the charges were dropped. It also appears that he spent some time in the army right after college.
“Let’s see, who’s next? Ah yes, Beth Campbell has a history of passing bad checks. Her latest brush with the law was just over a year ago. And since we’re on the Campbell’s, her husbands no superstar either. He managed two years in the military before being dishonorably discharged. Seems he got drunk and destroyed some government property. Did a few years in a military prison. He’s got a series of D.U.I.’s that date back nearly twenty years, almost exactly the time he got out of the military. It’s absolutely amazing that this guy hasn’t killed somebody and landed in a different prison.”
“Chief?” I interrupted him. “Are the dates of the bad checks in the data?”
“Um, yeah. Why?”
“Just wondering if there is any correlation between her bad checks and his drinking.”
There was silence for a few seconds. “Not sure I’d call it a correlation, but the dates are pretty close. You’re thinking that she got in trouble bailing him out?”
“That or paying for the attorney to keep him out.”
“It plays. Now, let’s see. Your suspicion about Michelle Carter and Theresa Parker was spot on. They are sisters, with Michelle being the older by two years. Both they and their husbands come out clean at this level. The other couple, the Adams? Nothing in their file either.
“Now when we get to the Moreno’s we’ve got a few hits here as well. Kimberly Moreno has a sealed juvie. We’d need a court order to open that. But since she became an adult, nothing illegal. She has been named as a co-defendant in a case that was brought by a Sandra Moreno, against Anthony and Kimberly Moreno. Guessing here, but Sandra is—”
“Sandy’s Tony’s ex-wife,” I broke in. “I remember Kim telling me that yesterday. Sorry about stepping on your toes there,” I apologized.
“No, that’s all right. I was going to guess that, but you were able to confirm it. Now moving on to Anthony Moreno. He’s got a few dings here and there, mostly for getting into a few bar room brawls when he was in his twenties. He’s been sued nearly a dozen times and investigated for insider trading twice. Every time, he’s come out clean. At the time of his death, there appeared to be three suits pending. One by the aforementioned Sandra, one by a Gregory Nelson and finally one by Scott and Elizabeth Campbell.”
“Thanks for the help, Chief,” I said cheerfully.
“I guess I’ve got to say, you’re welcome. You seem to have put together a pretty good investigation, Merrifield. Anything else while we’re on the phone?”
Looking up, the big blades of the turbine caught my attention. “Actually, yes. Did you have any luck getting me the information about investigating a suspected bombing?”
“I did. It’s in the email. I didn’t look over it before it headed your way, so I can’t give you a synopsis.”
“Fair enough. Thanks again,” I said just before I hung up.
“What’d ya think, Sonja? Should we go over and take a look while we’re here?”
She just whinnied, so I took that as an agreement.
I dismounted, tied the reins to a tree branch and made my way to the small building that sat at the base of the turbine. Before entering, I turned my phone’s video recorder on and secured it to the waistband of my jeans. Using the most confident voice I could muster I said, “Laura Merrifield. Entering the turbine control room at ten-twenty-eight, on the morning of July twelfth, two-thousand-fifteen.”
When I finished, I turned on the small flashlight I’d borrowed from Luke, pushed the door open and stepped in.
The interior of the first room was unchanged. There were no lights, or sounds, just the dull beige walls. It was the second door, the one that went into the main control room, which caught my attention. It was slightly ajar.
“Hello?” I called out, inching my way closer to the door.
I kicked the door open and spun the light around the room.
It looked the same, but the back of my neck was prickly. Something wasn’t right. Before I could do anything, something struck the back of my neck and the last thing I saw was a shadow moving along the wall as my vision began to gray out.
I awoke some time later in the dark. I could make out a small flashing red light, but nothing else.
Trying to roll over, I found my hands and feet had been tied together. Thankfully whoever had trussed me up had left my hands in front of me. My back ached so I tried to maneuver myself into a sitting position, but my shoulder hit something before I was totally erect.
My second attempt was better served, and I managed to get into a seated position, still totally unclear of where I was in the room. I needed to have use of my hands and feet before I did anything.
Slowly I slid myself towards the unseen object that I’d run into before. When my shoulder bumped it, I raised my arms together and tried to feel for an edge. It was thin and metallic. The door to the control panel, I wondered. Slowly I moved my hands until I found the front edge and began using a sawing motion to try and free my hands.
By the time the rope bindings felt slack, my muscles were aching and burning. Thankfully the rope snapped and my freed arms fell to my side.
As I waited for the ache in my arms to recede to a point that I might be able to function again, I looked around the room again, trying to remember what was here and where it had been the last time when Luke and I were here.
I spoke aloud to myself very softly in an attempt to keep myself calm. “If this is the door to the main panel, then that puts me at the back of the room, roughly centered. Therefore the door to get out should be about ten feet straight ahead and six feet to the right.”
I frowned. The flashing red light was only a few feet ahead of me. I wasn’t sure exactly how far ahead, but it was definitely closer than ten feet.
I started working on the knots that held my feet together while working on the rest of my plan.
“If I slide to the right until I hit the wall, I should be able to follow that up to the door. From that door, it’s about ten feet straight across until I’m outside.”
The ropes fell from my ankles, and I began pushing myself towards the wall.
When my hip hit the wall, I got a bit of a surprise. My phone was still in its case clipped to my waistband, which meant two things. Number one, I had access to a flashlight app so I’d be able to see where I was going, and secondly, I was probably still shooting video.
Carefully, I removed the phone from the holder, and touched the screen. Sure enough the video was still going. It took me a few tries, but I was able to turn on the little light and gasped at what I saw.
The room was as neat as a pin. All of the debris had been swept into a pile. On top of the pile sat two rectangular strips of what looked like clay. Wires ran from the substance to a small timer sitting on the very top of the pile with a red blinking light. Somewhere in the back of my mind, my subconscious realized that the two strips that looked like clay were actually something like C-4. “Silly putty with a bang,” I said with the realization. “This definitely gives credence to the idea that the initial bombing of the control room was planned as a distraction. Somebody’s been back to clean up the mess, and now plans to destroy the evidence of what happened here,” I said as I panned the camera around the room.
I looked at the timer. Less than two minutes. Since I had no experience with explosives, this told me that I had two minutes to gather evidence and get clear.
I headed out the door, again taking only a few moments to video this room too. Everything was neatly put back into the containers and stacked along the wall. “This scene is beyond compromised,” I complained.
I sprinted down to where I’d left Sonja, surprised to see her still there, nibbling on the tall grass.
“I’m sure glad to see you, girl,” I said grabbing the reins and throwing myself back into the saddle. “Come on, let’s head on home.” I gave a slight tap with my feet, and she began to trot off towards the stables at a pretty good clip. We were about five hundred yards away when the place blew.
I pulled Sonja into the tree line, hoping to protect us from falling debris when I heard my phone ring. I glanced down at the display and saw my brother’s name on the screen. Pressing the button, I answered, “Hey, Luke. I was just going to call you. You’ve got a real psycho around. They just blew up your turbine.”
“What?” he stammered. “They blew it up? Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I lied. My head was throbbing, and I felt nauseous. “So, what’s up?”
“What’s up?” he nearly shouted. “What’s up is that you’ve been missing for the past three hours. And now you tell me that somebody’s just blown my wind turbine to smithereens. Where the heck are you?”
“Th-three hours? I’ve been out for three hours?” I closed my eyes and commanded myself to relax. “Sorry, Luke. I took a ride around the island, and stopped at the turbine to see if there were any clues there. Someone else was there as well.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Can you meet me at the stables? Just you. Please.”
“I’ll be there in five,” he said before the line went dead.
“Three hours,” I murmured to Sonja. “How the heck did whoever did this keep me out that long?”
She didn’t know, and neither did I.
I was brushing Sonja when Luke came up from behind me, surprising me with a hug. “You okay?” he asked.
“I’ve got a pretty good sized knot on the back of my head from when I got coldcocked. Otherwise, I guess I’m okay.”
“So, what exactly happened?”
As I finished taking care of Sonja, I filled him in. “As I see it, the video from the phone may provide enough evidence for an arrest all it’s own. But for now, I don’t have much on the assault. But, I think I know who killed Mr. Moreno.”
“Who?” Luke wanted to know.
“I’d rather have everyone, including Chief O’Brien here when I make my findings known.”
Luke thought about it for a minute. “Well, you’re the boss right now. So, how do you want to play it?”
“I’m calling O’Brien before we go back to the house to make arrangements for him and a deputy to be here right after breakfast tomorrow. We’ll have to have the meeting before anyone can have the chance of leaving. Might even be a good idea to have someone guard the bridge overnight.
“For that matter, I think over dinner tonight, I’ll let it slip that O’Brien will be coming to talk to everyone in the morning,” I added. “Shall we go have a meal with your guests?”
Ignoring threats was something I’d perfected during my tenure with the NYPD, and thankfully, I hadn’t lost my aptitude for it.
“This is borderline harassment,” Greg said. “We are all very busy people here, and have responsibilities that we must be allowed to get back to.”
“Mr. Nelson, I do understand, but as there was a murder here this past Friday, and the authorities have not been able to come out and interview us, Chief O’Brien has made it clear that we are all to stay here until he or one of his deputies let’s us go. He should be here shortly.”
I’d no sooner finished speaking when the chimes at the door sounded. I looked up to the approaching voices and saw one of Luke’s employees walking two men down the hall.
Standing I approached the two officers. A quick glance told me the ranks. I extended my hand to the Chief, “Welcome, O’Brien,” I said.
“Thinking about changing careers, Merrifield? I don’t think you’d like being a hotelier. It’d take too much time away from your writing,” he said with a grin.
I led him into the main sitting room, where all of the guests, and staff along with Missy and Luke, waited.
“Okay,” O’Brien began. “We received a call Friday night regarding the mysterious death of one Anthony Moreno. According to notes supplied by Ms. Merrifield, the deceased was identified by Luke Robinson, owner of this establishment, Gregory Nelson, a partner of sorts of Moreno, and the widow.
“Due to circumstances that were beyond our control, we were unable to get out here to do any follow ups until this morning.
“I’m going to say this once, and only once. Everyone here is considered a person of interest in the murder of Mr. Moreno until one of my staff says otherwise.” He looked around the room at the fidgeting figures. “Is that clear?”
Grudgingly, Greg, Michelle and Kevin all nodded.
“Now, as things progressed, we found ourselves lucky to have Ms. Merrifield on the island to run the preliminary investigation. At this time, I’d like for her to report to all of us what she has found.”
I really hated doing group seminars, but you do what you’ve got to do. I stood and walked to the center of the room. Show time.
“When we first found Mr. Moreno’s body, I asked the Chief to run everybody that was here. That means the twelve of you, me, my brother and sister-in-law, and the six employees. For the most part, everybody came out reasonably clean. There were some minor bumps, but nothing that singled anybody out immediately.
“From there, we started looking at the relationships between everyone and the victim. The employees, like me, had never met Mr. Moreno until his arrival on Friday. But it appears to me that the events of this weekend began long before Friday night, when the power went out,” I stated. “I would in fact guess that the events were put into motion nearly six months ago when Luke went to a meeting to gain investors in Rim Runners’. At that time, he and Melissa met four of you for the first time. Michelle, Greg, Jim and the late Tony Moreno.
“Luke has known Kevin for many years, and in fact it was Kevin who helped build the relationships between the investors and Luke. Luke’s records show that five of the investors: Kevin, Greg, Michelle, Jim and Tony requested another meeting and signed on the following weekend. The only investor who came on board after that was Beth Campbell.”
“So what does that have to do with anything? The fact that my wife was out of town that weekend and only later heard about the opportunity through Greg sends up some kind of sign?” Scott asked.
“No, Mr. Campbell. I’m simply drawing the time line. I’m establishing that all of the investors have known each other for some time.
“The reality is, that most of you have known each other for some time. Kevin, you, Michelle and Theresa all went to the same college at the same time, and in fact you were all in several investing clubs at that time.
“And Michelle obviously knew her brother-in-law, Jim. Going out on a limb here, I’d say that it was quite possible that you, Jim, introduced all of them,” I said pointing to the others I’d named, “to your racquetball partners, Tony Moreno and Greg Nelson.
“Greg was involved with R.O.T.C. while in college and then served in the service as an officer, where he was forced to deal with an arrogant hot-head by the name of Scott Campbell. Surprisingly, from the data that Chief O’Brien dug up, it shows that a Lieutenant Gregory Nelson testified in the disciplinary hearing of Corporal Campbell shortly before Campbell was discharged.
“What does any of this have to do with Moreno’s death?” Greg demanded. “So we knew each other? Big deal.”
“Mr. Nelson, the fact that you were all acquainted before the investment in Rim Runners’ is a big deal. You, in fact, are the one that brought Beth Campbell into the investment. Why? And of more interest to me, I’d like to know why you and the Campbell’s each have a lawsuit against Moreno over past investments, but yet you both bought into another one with him? Makes me very curious.”
Greg snarled his lips, but didn’t say anything. Scott looked like he was ready to explode; his face was red and splotchy.
“Again referring to the time line, a little over a month ago, at one of the director’s meetings, one of you requested that Luke and Missy open Rim Runners’ early for a dry run. A chance for all of the investors to come together and see how this facility was fairing. This meeting is significant because it put into motion a series of events that led to Mr. Moreno’s death.
“As investors and board members, each of you was intimately aware of the resort’s power system and back ups, along with the security cameras.
“One of the first things that I found significant was that after the power went out, when Luke and I went to the turbine, the generator wouldn’t work. Not because of any technical difficulty, or something simple that a tech could fix today. No. The unit wouldn’t work because it had been sabotaged. Based on the damage that I saw, and the notes that deputy Jensen provided, I’m guessing it was sabotaged by a very small amount of explosives, such as C-4, and detonated with a cell phone.”
“Wait!” shouted Michelle. “You’re telling us that somebody blew up the turbine and the generator?”
“Twice actually,” I said. “Luke and I didn’t say anything about the first attack when we got back, partly because we didn’t know what Chief O’Brien would want us to do. We were waiting for his call for that next step.
“Shortly after we got back, Luke got the one gas generator going so there were some lights in the house. That’s when we discovered Mr. Moreno missing.
“Without going into too much detail about finding Mr. Moreno, I’ll just skip to what my investigation turned up. We collected hair, fiber and blood from the scene, all of which has already been turned over to Chief O’Brien. The next morning, I found a trail that led from the stables to the maintenance shed. Upon investigation, it was determined that three items had been removed from the stable at some point. A ball peen hammer, an antique hoof pick and a manure scoop.
“From referencing the photos that we took of the crime scene, and based on the shape and size of the contusions, I made an educated guess that we were looking for the manure scoop. Working from the hypothesis that the killer would want to get rid of the murder weapon, I guessed the best place to ditch it would be in the Atlantic. So, I took a walk around the area. Not only did we find the scoop hung up on the rocks just above the water line, but I found an area where somebody of mid stature fell.
“Judging by the size and shape of the indentations in the mud, I’d put the suspect at about five-six and male. What would you say to that, Mr. Campbell?”
“I don’t have to say a word. You’ve got no proof.”
I turned and looked at him. “You see? That’s where you’re wrong. I had my suspicions after Saturday, but I wasn’t sure. Then on Sunday, I decided to take a ride around the island, keeping my eye on a few of you.
“Spontaneously, I decided that I’d go back to the first scene. The turbine. In an effort to document everything that I did, I turned on the video recorder on my cell phone before I entered. It was running when you attacked me, Mr. Campbell. The attack is on video. As is your administering a small dose of a horse tranquilizer called ketamine to me as well.”
“It was too dark in there for you to see anything when you got hit! You can’t—”
“You’re correct there Mr. Campbell, it was too dark. However, your voice print is more than enough proof.”
“Well if I did it, how’d I blow the place up? I never left here after we got here Friday. Hmm, Ms. Smarty? You said a cell phone triggered it, but I don’t have one. I lost mine more than two weeks ago. Ask Beth,” Campbell said loudly.
“Sending a text via an iPad or other device is a fairly easy thing to do, Campbell. When Greg Nelson called the number that you sent him it triggered the cell phone that was attached to the C-4, and resulted in the explosion.
“Chief O’Brien ran the incoming calls and texts for all of our phones,” I explained. “He was able to track your text back to your iPad. You seem to forget, that if your tablet has cellular capabilities, it has a unique identifier. Just as good as a fingerprint.”
Beth turned and looked at her husband with tears in her eyes. “Scott? Why? Why would you do that? Did you really kill Tony?”
“Please, Scott,” Chief O’Brien said. “We’d all like to hear your reasoning. But in any case, I’m going to read you your rights.”
Later that night, Luke, Missy and I were seated on the back deck of the resort enjoying the clear summer night when my phone rang. I looked at the display and sighed. “Merrifield.”
“I wanted to give you a professional ‘well done’, Ms. Merrifield. You tied him up nicely for us. By the time we got him into a cell, he’d about spilled his guts about everything. Of course the lawyer is going to try and get everything thrown out. But what else can you expect from a defense attorney?” O’Brien stated.
“Did he give his reasoning?” I asked.
“He felt that he was cheated out of money when Moreno flipped the old family farm. He’d demanded money immediately, even tried suing for it, but that wasn’t going anywhere either. He was determined to make Moreno pay.”
“Did you have any luck tracking down where he got the C-4 from? I don’t expect that you can just walk into the hardware store and buy it off the shelf?”
“Not here you can’t. But it seems that he had a contact in a demolition crew that was willing to part with a small quantity for a reasonable compensation. Of course, he’s cooling his heels in an adjoining cell right now as well.”
“Thanks for keeping me informed, Chief.”
“Oh, and if you could let your brother know, we recovered the missing pick and hammer in Campbell’s suitcase. Guess he thought they might be worth something in the antiques market.”
“I can do that,” I said with a light laugh.
“You enjoy the rest of your vacation, and if you ever think about giving up that idea of writing, I’d be willing to put you on my force.”
“Is that a threat, Chief?” I asked with a laugh. “Thanks, but no. I think I’ll just write this story. No one’s going to believe it anyway.”
Walking down Main, I wrapped my arms tightly around my waist, holding the sides of my wool sweater close to my body trying to get warm. For some reason, this fall seemed to be abnormally chilly to me. I couldn’t decide if it was the actual temperature or because of my personal situation, but I couldn’t recall an October feeling this cold before.
As I walked, I glanced in the windows of the shops that lined the street. We didn’t have too many major stores in the immediate area, but the town was filled with small mom-and-pop stores that catered primarily to the tourist crowd and the summer dwellers.
I passed Donna’s Jewelry, and could see a young couple inside. From his glazed over expression and her radiant smile, I guessed that they were looking at engagement rings. I smiled thinking back to the day when Rob proposed to me. Lost in my thoughts, I wandered down the street towards Cher’s.
Cher’s diner was on the ground level of a three-story brick building that sat on the corner of Main and Beachcomber. The plate glass front was etched with gold leaf and had the name in an elegant script. As I stood waiting to cross over, my stomach lurched slightly. I was nervous.
I’d had lunch here several times since I’d moved to this town, but this was the first time I’d be meeting friends here. I still wasn’t sure how they knew about Rob, and what today was, but that could be a thought for another day.
Walking into the well-lit diner, I immediately spotted Liz and Sarah.
Actually, it would have been hard to miss them. Sarah, who has fire engine red hair and is barely five-feet tall was standing behind her chair, waving both arms and whistling.
I raised my eyebrows wondering what I had gotten myself into, gave a timid wave and started towards the two women.
Approaching them, I wondered what brought the two of them together. Sarah was probably in her early fifties, while Liz was closer to my age, in her mid to late thirties. Sarah was obviously extremely outgoing, not concerned about putting on a spectacle. Liz seemed to be a bit more reserved, but still more outgoing than I, Queen of the Introverts, saw myself.
Anxiety was still rumbling in my belly when the waitress came over to take our orders. Not sure how I was going to do, I decided to go for comfort food and ordered the B.L.T. with my bacon really crisp.
“What?” I asked the other two who were now staring at me after the waitress left.
“Do you eat like that all the time?” Liz asked. “You’ve got a figure that makes me envious of you, and I’m forcing myself to eat rabbit food and you’re having French fries. It doesn’t seem fair.”
I was astounded. “You’re envious of my figure?” I managed. I’d never thought of my shape as anything more than a way to fill out clothes.
“Lizzie’s always been like that,” Sarah said with a smile. “She always thinks that everyone else has the better side of things. But she is right, dear. You’ve got a figure that probably drives every man crazy.”
“Sarah!” Liz hissed.
“Oh, golly,” Sarah said shaking her head. “Sorry about that, Laura. I didn’t think about things.”
I just nodded, and tried to move the subject away from my feelings and men.
By the time we’d finished our lunches, and made our way the three doors down to Amber’s I’d forgotten about my nerves. Between Sarah’s lack of inhibition and Liz’s supposed horror at Sarah’s antics, I found myself having a good time. It was refreshing to be out with friends again.
Pushing through the door at Amber’s, my nostrils were assaulted by the telltale aroma of a perm. A pert blonde walked up to our little group, “Welcome to Amber’s. I’m Jasmine, your hostess for your experience. Please, follow me.” She turned and led us back to a small reception area.
Three women sat in the overstuffed chairs reading the latest fashion magazines while they waited for their next consultant. One of the women looked up at our small entourage and visible sneered.
“Hi, Edna Lou,” Liz called out cheerfully. “How are you doing?”
I barely knew Edna Lou. She too was a member of our league, but she had never struck me as the friendly type. In my mind, I always saw her as the overachiever, the super competitor. Whenever we played against her team, she never said anything to another player. In fact, as I thought about it, I couldn’t remember ever seeing her talk to anyone else at the lanes.
“My day was fine,” Edna Lou said in a raspy voice that spoke of too many years of smoking.
By tacit agreement, Liz, Sarah and I found seats on the other side of the room. Trying not to look horribly out of place, I picked up a copy of Cosmo from the side table and pretended to read.
Jasmine came to the doorway holding a clipboard and called Edna Lou and me.
Edna Lou was directed to a massage room, while I was taken to the back and introduced to a woman who looked like she had just stepped off the runway for a magazine shoot. Old instinct kicked in and I did a quick inventory of her. Five-ten, brown eyes and dark brown hair that stuck out in all directions, and the whitest teeth I could remember ever seeing.
“Hi,” she said sticking out a hand that had to be adorned by at least seven different rings. “You’re Laura, right?”
“Yes,” I said wondering when my voice had become so timid.
“I’m Amber. Welcome to my place. Since my cousin said that this was your first time here, I thought I’d take you myself.” She pointed for me to sit in the beauty chair that was in front of her.
“Your cousin?” I asked as I settled in.
She snapped a cape around my neck and nodded. “Liz Alcott’s mom is my dad’s sister. So Liz and I grew up together.” She spun me around and worked her hands through my hair and began muttering. “You’ve got a good color, and it’s nice and thick, but it lays all wrong for your face. I think you need a good cut, and a bit of a style.”
“No!” I nearly screamed, my eyes wide. “I-I can’t lose the length. Please.” I couldn’t tell her that one of Rob’s favorite things to do for me was to brush and braid my hair. If I lost the length, I might lose the memory too.
Amber looked at me slyly. “All right, no change in length. How about layers? It’ll let it lie a bit nicer, give you a bit more body and enhance your face.”
“I dunno. I guess we could try,” I acquiesced.
Thirty minutes later, after she massaged my scalp, washed, styled and dried my hair, Amber spun me back towards the mirror. “Well?”
I stared. I saw the woman reflected back, and couldn’t believe that she was me. She had my moss green eyes, and the chestnut colored hair was right. But instead of looking bland, the woman in the mirror looking back at me was a raving beauty.
My hair softly framed my face, and even though I knew that nothing had been done to enhance my eyes, they were obviously my most prominent feature, easily canceling out the too rounded chin and the dimple that rested in the center of it.
“Wow. Amber, it’s wonderful,” I said.
“That’s what we—”
A blood-curdling scream echoed throughout the spa cutting her off.
Other Titles by Christine Chianti:
The Shocking Truth
New Kid in Town
Whole Once More
Resort to Homicide
Makeover for Murder (June 2016)
Homicide for the Holidays (June 2016)
Tagged for Murder (June 2016)
Blue Ridge Dreams
FBI Organized Crime Taskforce
Sleepy Hollow High
Christine Chianti is the pen name of a multi-published author who writes both fiction and non-fiction. As Christine Chianti, she is the author of more than twenty titles ranging from short stories to novels.
Christine is a member of Romance Writers of America and is at home in Western New York.
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Vacations can be Murder After the loss of her husband, ex-homicide detective turned mystery writer, Laura Merrifield turns to her family. Giving in to her brother's request, she goes to visit his new island resort during a special weekend for the investors. Spending time at Rim Runners should have been the perfect prescription to help rebuild her life, but the mood at the resort is like the weather-stormy. As hurricane Anna cuts them off from the mainland, tempers flare resulting in threats and sabotage. When the body of one of the guests is found, Laura is forced to rely on her training to find the killer before the storm lets up and they can slip away.