Authors: Kathryn O'Sullivan
For my husband and parents with love
As with many creative endeavors,
this book is the result of help and support from numerous people. Thanks to my husband, who is always my first reader, kindest critic, and greatest support; to my parents, two talented writers who set the bar high and helped me reach it; and to the rest of my family, friends, and my colleagues at Northern Virginia Community College for providing me with the warmth and encouragement every writer should have.
Sincere thanks to Katy Moore for reading and believing in this novel, the amazing volunteers and organizers of the Malice Domestic conference, and everyone involved with the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel competition, without whom this book would not be.
A very special thanks and deepest gratitude to my editor, Toni Plummer, for her brilliant insights and suggestions that truly made this novel better.
Thank you to John Morrone, the copy editor who carefully reviewed every line.
Thank you to Daniel Steven for his advice.
Fond thanks to Carole Bellacera, Linda Rodriguez, Jeffrey Stepakoff, and Noreen Wald, remarkable writers and people, who took time away from their own work to read mine.
Thanks to the members of Sisters in Crime, especially those of the Chesapeake Chapter, and Margery Flax and the members of Mystery Writers of America, who inspire me with their stories, humor, and undying love of mysteries.
Sincere thanks to all those dedicated to protecting the beautiful wild horses depicted in this book.
Finally, a heartfelt thank-you to the men and women firefighters of Corolla Fire and Rescue, who so generously gave me their time and instilled in me a deep and lasting appreciation for the nobility and selflessness of firefighters everywhere.
As a lazy July sun
rose over the Atlantic Ocean, a lone gray and white seagull flew toward the pristine sands of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The gull soared above softly undulating ocean swells, past dolphins leaping playfully from the sea, and over misty, breaking waves before reaching shore.
The seagull scanned the beach for its morning meal, spied a crab flinging granules from its hole, and glided low. The crab stopped its work and peeked cautiously up at the bird. The gull hovered above the crab and then, catching the scent of a tastier meal down the beach, beat its wings and sailed away toward breakfast.
The gull approached its meal, a dark form that lay partially submerged in a shallow saltwater pool created by waves cutting into the dunes. The bird screeched intermittently as it soared closer … thirty, twenty, ten yards away. It cocked its head and lowered its feet for landing. But the descent wasn’t easy. The gull wasn’t the only one interested in the small pool on the beach. Dozens of birds were zeroing in on the spot. The gray and white gull pecked its way into a blanket of beating wings. It could no longer see the blackened mass in the pool but it could smell it.
Suddenly, other sounds overpowered that of the screaming gulls—the rapid thumping of approaching horses, the harsh growl of a revving engine, the primal howl of mischief-making teens. The birds cocked their heads toward the noise. Thundering down the beach at full gallop was a herd of wild horses followed by two teen boys on a dune buggy.
The boys laughed and hollered as they chased the horses at full speed along the shore. The frightened horses snorted heavily. They had managed to stay a few feet ahead of their adolescent tormenters but their fatigue was apparent. Their muscles tightened. Their mouths foamed. Their chests sweated.
One of the boys, a freckled skater type, leaned from the buggy. He held the roll bar with one hand and stretched his arm toward the flapping mane of one of the horses. The horse was just out of reach. “Get closer!” the boy yelled. His friend, the pierced and tattooed driver, gunned the engine.
The herd headed straight toward the flock of gulls feeding at the pool. One by one the birds took flight, abandoning the pool and its treasure. The skater’s face flushed pink with excitement as he extended to his full length and grabbed hold of a horse’s mane. The last bird snatched a black morsel in its bill and became airborne as the horses crashed through the pool.
Water sprayed up and out. The driver yanked on the steering wheel in an attempt to avoid the pool and pulled the buggy up short. His passenger lost his grip on the horse and dune buggy, flew across the hood, and landed, with a splash, facedown in the water.
The driver laughed and whooped at the horses as they quickly disappeared down the beach. His delighted screams mixed with those of the gulls circling above. “Man, that rocked!” The driver grinned at his friend. His smile faded when he saw his friend hovering, crablike in the pool, his eyes staring at something next to him. “Man, you okay?”
The freckled boy’s arms shook as his muscles tired from holding his body above the water. His breathing grew shallow as his nostrils filled with the smell of decay. His pupils widened as his mind processed what he saw partially submerged and inches away—oddly burned and bloated skin surrounding sunken eye sockets; a nose barely maintaining its grip on a face; a lipless mouth grinning up at him. The teen tried to fight it, but slowly, from deep within his gut it rose. He swallowed hard, trying to keep it down. But it came anyway. Long and loud. His scream.
“Some like it hot,”
said the announcer on the radio.
“And some don’t,” said Fire Chief Colleen McCabe as she stretched across her gray metal desk in the Corolla, North Carolina, Station 6 firehouse and turned the volume down on the radio. She leaned back in her cushioned vinyl chair, switched on her desk fan, and swiveled to look out her second-floor office window at the cloudless morning sky.
Weather junkie that she was, Colleen didn’t need to hear the radio announcer’s Fourth of July weather report. She had checked the local radar online, the Weather Channel, and her own thermometer and barometer before leaving this morning. One thing was clear—the Outer Banks was on the verge of a record-breaking heat wave. Today, sand would burn the soft soles of children’s feet as they ran from the surf to the safety of umbrellas and towels; the sun would beat on tar roads and create the illusion of thin pools of standing water; and icicles would elongate on overworked air-conditioning units.
Despite her years of experience, Colleen’s heart skipped a beat and she felt a mild sense of anxiety thinking about the dangerous combination of brittle dune grass and vacationers’ illegal roadside fireworks. It wasn’t battling the fires that got to her; it was the anticipation of the event. Colleen used to get the same feeling before a race at college track meets. It was the waiting for the event rather than the competition itself that unnerved her. A call to the fire station had the same effect as a call to the starting blocks had had in college. Her jitters disappeared and she became focused, calm, and in her zone.
A car horn blared repeatedly outside. Colleen stood and peered out the window. A herd of wild Corolla horses slowly clopped down Whalehead Drive. Like Secret Service agents, three uniformed Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society officers followed closely behind the horses, making certain tourists kept their distance. A week earlier, a fierce tropical storm had knocked down a section of the sound-to-sea fences that separated the horses from the southern, more developed sections of Corolla. Until the fences were repaired and the horses returned to the refuge, the preservation officers were responsible for protecting herds that had escaped the sanctuary from speeding cars and curious tourists.
Colleen knew the horses were safest in the refuge but it was nice seeing them wandering the island again. The last time the threatened breed of Spanish mustangs had been this far south was in 1996, before the last of them were safely relocated behind the sanctuary fences. The 12,000 acres of refuge on the northern beaches had been created after twenty horses had been killed or injured by cars on Ocean Trail Road. Colleen missed the days when the horses roamed freely but understood the critical need to protect them.
The vacationers were eagerly trying to get close to the rare Spanish mustangs and the preservation officers were determined to stop them. Colleen watched as the line of cars grew longer behind the officers and horses. A second horn sounded and then a third.
“Stay away from the horses!” Myrtle Crepe squawked at the tourists.
Myrtle Crepe was the stocky, white-haired, sixty-five-year-old head of the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society and a royal pain to everyone visiting and living in Corolla.
Colleen sighed, tied her curly brown hair back in a ponytail, and descended the firehouse stairs. Sparky, her Border collie, followed quickly behind, his nails clicking on the corrugated metal. She approached Jimmy Bartlett, who was busy supervising the men as they checked their equipment. Jimmy was Colleen’s handlebar-mustached veteran captain and her most trusted colleague.
“Everything okay, Chief?” Jimmy asked.
“Just Myrtle stopping traffic again.” Colleen eyed the sparkling white engine with its navy blue stripe. “She looks good, fellas,” she said and exited. She folded her arms and stood in the shade of the firehouse entrance to witness Myrtle and the preservation officers in action.
“Little Bobby, stop that traffic. You’re letting cars by,” Myrtle said to her son.
Bobby Crepe, the second preservation officer, obediently lumbered to the middle of the street and thrust his hand at oncoming traffic. A tourist in the first car returned Bobby’s gesture with one of his own.
Myrtle spotted a small girl who had left her car and was tentatively reaching out to touch a foal. Myrtle scurried forward and whacked the child’s hand. Colleen winced, having once felt that smack on her own hand. Before retiring to work as a preservation officer, Myrtle had been a teacher at Colleen’s elementary school. Colleen had had the misfortune of being a student in Myrtle’s third-grade class.
The girl’s mother leapt from her car, rushed forward, and drew her daughter away in stunned silence. The vacationers retreated to their cars, whispering outrage among themselves.
“Was that really necessary?” Nellie Byrd asked. Nellie was the third and final officer, and the well-liked owner of Nell’s Gift Shop and Rentals.
“They need to know we mean business,” Myrtle said.
“We want to attract members to the horse society, not drive them away.”
“Are you head preservation officer?” Myrtle asked, pulling rank.
Nellie bit her lip and turned to observe the horses as they moved off the road to the nearby dunes to munch on vegetation. Colleen found it hard to believe that Myrtle and Nellie had stayed friends since childhood. The two could not have been more different. In Colleen’s mind, Myrtle was a pit bull and Nellie a cocker spaniel.
“Come here, Little Bobby,” Myrtle said, pointing to the ground in front of her.
Bobby lowered his arm and shuffled to the shoulder of the road. A line of cars inched past the firehouse. Angry drivers honked at Bobby as they passed.
“Myrtle Crepe is a witch!” came an irate voice from a passing car.
Edna Daisey shook her fist at Myrtle through the open driver’s-side window of her car, then took off down the road.