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Last Words: A Novel of Suspenseby Mariah Stewart
Two years later
The sun was just rising, hot and round, tentacles of color wrapping around the early morning sky like fingers around an orange. From his kitchen window, Gabriel Beck watched the pinks turn coral then red.
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
“Oh, yeah,” he grumbled under his breath. “This sailors taking warning . . .”
The coffeepot beeped to announce its brew was ready, and he poured into the waiting St. Dennis Chamber of Commerce DISCOVER SAINT DENNIS! mug. He unlocked the back door then stepped onto the small deck and inhaled deeply. Early June in a bay town had scents all its own, and he loved every one of them. Wild roses mixed with salt air, peonies, and whatever the tide deposited on the narrow stretch of coarse sand that passed as beach overnight. It was heady, and along with the coffee he sipped, was all he really needed to start his day off right.
His cell phone rang and he patted his pocket for it, then remembered hed left it on the kitchen counter. He went back inside, the screen door slamming behind him.
“Chief, I hate to do this to you so early in the morning, but we have a two-vehicle tangle out on Route 33,” Police Sergeant Lisa Singer reported.
“One of the drivers is complaining of back pain. Were waiting for the ambulance. Traffics really light right now, but if we cant get these cars out of here within the hour, were going to have a mess. Ive got Duncan directing traffic around the accident but its going to get hairy here before too much longer.”
“Christ, the Harbor Festival.” So much for starting the day off right. “Ill call Hal and see if he can come in a little early today.”
Beck tossed back the rest of the coffee and set the mug in the sink. “You called Krausers for a tow truck?”
“Yeah, but I didnt get an answer. I called the service and asked them to page Frank, but I havent heard back yet.”
“Ill have Hal stop by on his way in, see if he can shake someone loose. Chances are Frank left his pager on the front seat of his car and he and the boys are outside shooting the shit and no ones opened the office yet.”
“Thats pretty much what I was thinking.”
“Ill see what I can do.”
Beck turned off the coffeepot and the kitchen light, then headed out to his Jeep, his phone in his hand. Once behind the wheel, he punched in the speed-dial for Hal Garrity as he backed out of his driveway. Hal, one-time chief of police in St. Dennis, Maryland, was now happily retired but always agreeable to working part-time hours in the summer when the tourists invaded the small town on the Chesapeake Bay. At sixty-five, he was still in fine shape, still took pride in being a good cop, and had no problem taking direction from his successor. After all, hed been instrumental in hiring Beck.
Hal answered on the first ring. He was already on his way in to the station, but was just as happy to head out to the accident scene, and wouldnt mind a stop at Krausers Auto Body to check up on that tow truck. Beck smiled when the call ended. As much as Hal loved retirement, he sure did love playing cop now and then.
The narrow streets of St. Dennis were waist-high in an eerie mist that had yet to be burned off by the still rising sun. Wisps of white, caught in the headlights, were tossed about by Becks old Jeep, the ragged pieces floating across Charles Street, the main road that ran through the village, from the highway straight on out to the bridge over the inlet that led to Cannonball Island. Here in the center of town all was unbroken silence. No other cars were on the street, no shops opened, no pedestrians passed by. All was still. Peaceful.
This was the St. Dennis Beck loved, the one he remembered when he thought about moving back two years ago. But, with all the renovations, and every available building being bought up and fixed up and turned into one fancy shop or another, the St. Dennis hed known would someday be little more than a fond memory. Now, though, in the early morning hours, before the tourists came out and the shop lights went on, the village was his home again. Peaceful, the way it was supposed to be.
Except for that damned traffic accident out on the highway, and knowing that by nine this morning the first of the tourists would arrive. They would be eager to spend their money in the picturesque boutiques and crowd his peaceful streets as they did every day starting in the middle of April and going strong right on through till Christmas. Today would be especially lively.
Beck checked the time. It was not quite six. The third annual Harbor Festival officially began at two that afternoon, but soon the first cars would begin to pull into the free parking lots across from the municipal building, and the early arrivals would descend on one of the three eateries in town that opened for breakfast.
He made a left onto Kellys Point Road and eased slowly down the narrow stretch to the municipal building. He parked in front of the sign that read reserved: g. beck and got out of his car. The tightly compacted crushed clam and oyster shells that covered the parking lot and served as fill crackled under his feet as he walked toward the building.
Beck entered his department through double glass doors off the lobby and was greeted by the dispatcher.
“Morning, Garland. Youre in early. Who was on night dispatch?”
“Bill Mason. He had an asthma attack around five and called me to come in.”
“Mason called you at five and asked you to come in?” Beck frowned.
“I didnt mind. I was already awake. He filled in for me when my car died in Baltimore a few weeks back.”
“Glad you guys get along.”
“Two peas in a pod,” Garland replied before turning all business. “You heard about the accident out on thirty-three?”
“Lisa called a while ago. Shes out there with Duncan. Hal should be out there by now, too.” Beck looked through a short stack of phone messages that had come in overnight. “Give Lisa a call and tell her to come on in. And tell Duncan to make sure hes back in town before nine. I want him on foot patrol. By then, Hal ought to have the accident scene cleaned up, and we can put him on parking.”
“Will do.” Garland Hess, a thirty-five-year-old transplant from Boston three years earlier, went to work.
A long hall separated the quarters assigned to the police department exactly in two. Becks office was at the end of the hall, and ran the width of their end of the building. On the opposite side of the lobby were the towns administrative offices, and a combination of meeting rooms and conference rooms, with storage on the second floor. The basement was a damp black hole that invited mold to grow on anything placed down there, and the attic was hot in summer and cold in winter. Some old police files and council meeting records going back decades were packed away in fading boxes tucked under the eaves, though no one ever ventured up there. Beck suspected that if examined, many of the boxes would be found to have been gnawed on by mice or covered with bat droppings.
Every once in a while Beck thought about climbing the open stairwell to the third floor to see just what-all had accumulated up there over the years, but he hadnt made it yet, and wasnt likely to any time soon. The “archives,” as Hal liked to refer to the stored files, would have to wait until the tourist season had come and gone. This weekends Harbor Festival, slated to run from Friday through Sunday night, was just one of many weekends planned by the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce to bring in crowds and revenue. The merchants, understandably, all thought it was swell. The old-timers, like Hal and some others, thought it was all a pain in the butt.
“These narrow little streets werent designed for so much traffic,” Hal complained to Beck when he made it back to the station after having directed traffic out on the highway for two hours.
“Thats why the powers that be had those parking lots put in behind the shops on Charles Street,” Beck said, and took the opportunity to remind him, “Rumor has it that you were one of the powers who thought it was a good idea.”
“That was six years ago. Harbor Day was barely a gleam in the mayors eye back then.” Hal shook his head. “Whoda figured this sleepy little town was about to wake up?”
“It has done that,” Beck muttered, and leaned across his desk to pick up the ringing phone. At the same time, he motioned to Hal to take a seat in one of the empty chairs.
Becks call was short and he hung up just as Lisa poked her head in the door.
“First of the onslaught is just starting,” she told the chief. “What do you want to do about traffic control?”
“Put Duncan out on the highway till eleven”—Beck pulled his chair up to his desk and sat—“then call Phil in and ask him to take over out there until two. Things should have eased up a lot by then.”
“What about here in town?”
“I expect the only real problem will be where Kellys Point runs into Charles Street, there at the crosswalk,” Beck said.
“Ill take that until noon,” Hal told him.
“Then Ill take over from you from twelve to four,” Lisa offered.
“Arent you supposed to be off today?” Beck frowned and searched his in-bin for the schedule.
“Monday and Tuesday.” Lisa leaned against the door jamb.
“Id have thought youd be down at the boatyard to give your husband a hand.” Hal smiled. “Bound to be some foot traffic, all those people down on the docks. Someones going to want to look at a boat. Singers Boatyard is the only show in town.”
Lisa smiled back. “The boatyards Todds baby. He does his job, I do mine. His sister took the kids to the beach for the weekend, so were both doing our own thing today. But yeah, were hoping that a few folks in the crowd will be looking to pick up a boat this weekend. Hes put a few on sale, so well see.”
“Well, if you want to take the lot down nearest the dock, thats okay by me. We can put Sue on bike patrol,” Beck said, “just to have a presence on the street. Discourage pickpockets, find lost kids, lost parents. Give directions, that sort of thing.”
“Sue just came in at eight,” Lisa told him. “Ill let her know shes on bike today.”
“Ill do a little foot patrol from time to time during the day,” Beck said. “Tomorrow, Lisa, you can take bike. I expect people will be leaving at different times throughout the day, so I dont think were going to have the mess well have today.”
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