Authors: Patricia Macdonald
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #USA
To Sara Clair, my Spodee girl, with all my heart
Special thanks are in order to Charles Horan, M.D., for the detailed information which I hope I summarized accurately; to Jane Berkey and Don Cleary for their tireless support; to Stephanie Laidman for her global efforts; to Maureen Egen for insight and enthusiasm; to Shellie Collins and especially to Mary B. Hackler for the time and peace of mind to write it, and to my husband, Art Bourgeau, for being my trusted critic, my unwavering corner man.
WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1994 by Patricia Bourgeau
All rights reserved.
First Printed in Paperback: December, 1994
Crystal Showack used a manual can opener
so that the whine of the electric opener would not awaken her grandparents. The fishy odor of cat food filled the tiny kitchen of the bungalow. Crystal pulled on her jacket, put a handful of cookies in her pocket for later, packed her schoolbooks in her knapsack, and checked the ceramic clock shaped like an apple pie that hung above the stove. Forty minutes until she had to catch the bus. Carefully balancing the can of cat food and a plastic fork in one hand, she opened the back door and slipped outside.
The sky was just beginning to lighten and there had been an early frost during the night that left the trees and scrubby bushes a dusty silver. Crystal looked back at the bungalow as she hurried off down the road. It was a typical New England-style beach cottage, with dark cedar shingles and white trim that had begun to peel from the constant exposure to salt air. Her grandfather used to keep that trim perfectly painted, but lately, although he kept mentioning that he needed to paint it, he seemed to have lost the will to get out there on the ladder.
Crystal had always loved coming to visit in the summer, especially after her grandparents permanently retired to their little summer home in the seaside town of Bayland, Massachusetts. She and her mother, Faith, had lived in a dingy studio apartment in New York City, and a visit to Bayland was a slice of paradise in an otherwise dreary existence. Crystal loved her narrow bed with the old quilt on the enclosed sleeping porch and the sound of the ocean crashing just a few streets away and beyond the dunes. But then, last summer, when Crystal was a few weeks shy of her ninth birthday, her mother, Faith, had died, and Crystal came to live with her grandparents for good. People tried to tell her that Faith died of pneumonia, but Crystal had lived around drugs all her life and she understood about overdoses. She just pretended to believe them. No use arguing about it.
The beach road was deserted at this hour. Crystal crossed the sandy tarmac and arrived at the entrance to the nature preserve that separated the street from the dunes. There were three trails inside, marked by different-colored arrows. Each one was a cedar plank walkway with railings on either side. One led to the beach. The other two wound through the preserve marked by widenings at various points where you could sit at a bench and little signs told you what birds and shore vegetation you were likely to see there. Crystal knew just where the cats would be. She followed the markers for the blue trail.
“Goddamn summer people,” her grandfather had grumbled when she told him about the cats she had spotted living in the bird sanctuary a few weeks back. She had been hoping that he might suggest they try to catch them and bring them home. But right away she knew he wouldn’t go for that idea. “These people want a pet for the summer and then they go and abandon them when they leave. And we get stuck with them,” he said darkly. The way he said it gave Crystal a kind of funny, bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. She thought of joking with him that he used to be a summer person himself until he retired, but she could tell he wasn’t in a joking mood. The other night she had heard him telling her grandmother, “This isn’t how I planned on spending my golden years—raising another kid.” She heard her grandmother murmuring to him to keep his voice down.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” she crooned. Crystal’s sneakers squeaked and thudded along the cedar walkway. On either side of the trail, brown sea grasses rooted in the marsh and, twice her size, rustled constantly. Bare trees, bent by the winds with gnarled, gray, intertwining branches, formed a brittle barricade around her. It always reminded her of the story of Sleeping Beauty when she was in the sanctuary, the way the briars grew up and surrounded her as she slept. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she called out, a little quaver in her voice.
There were three cats that seemed to live together at one particular spot along the blue trail. When Crystal first spotted them they had startled her, staring out at her from their lair in the marsh. And then they had darted away. She had come back the next day with food, leaned over the side of the walkway, and emptied it out on a dry spot. The cats had stared at her from deep within that twisted vegetation, staying well back from the trail. But each time she came back the food was gone. Crystal didn’t blame them for being wary. Dumped off like that, left alone. Who wouldn’t distrust people? But, lately, one of the cats had gotten bold. It was the littlest one, a calico. As soon as she would dump out the food, the calico would sidle up and quickly eat its fill, casting frequent dire glances in her direction, while the others hung back fearfully. After her last visit, Crystal made up her mind. She couldn’t let that one little cat eat everything while the others went hungry. And she hated the thought of them killing the birds in the sanctuary for food. She knew it was not allowed to leave the walkway because it was a preserve and also because it was very marshy. You couldn’t really tell by looking which ground was solid and which would sink away beneath you, sloping into those wine-dark pools of salt water with their deceiving grids of broken shafts and branches undulating so close to the surface. But this was an emergency. Winter was coming. The cats could starve without her help. Crystal had studied the spots where the cats lurked. She thought she could safely make her way through on the solid patches. It would probably be okay. As long as one of the park rangers didn’t catch her going in. That was why she came early. She had the whole preserve to herself.
Putting her book bag down on the walkway, Crystal peered through the rushes. In a few moments the cats assembled there, looking back at her. The little one began to inch forward as usual.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” said Crystal, “not today.”
After glancing back to be sure there was no one near, she climbed over the railing and dropped the short distance to the ground below. As she hit the ground with a thud the cats scattered as if a gunshot had been fired in their midst. “Don’t be afraid,” she murmured. “I’m your friend.”
The calico was the first to come back, of course. Crystal had already figured this part out. She shoveled out a little mound of food with the plastic fork and left it on a bare patch near the walkway. Then, stepping carefully to avoid the spongy, swampy areas, she started back through the dense sanctuary, pushing aside the crackling grasses as she went. She looked back, and sure enough, the little one had crept up to the food and was sniffing it. Crystal smiled to herself. Good, she thought. That will keep him busy. She came to the area where they always seemed to appear, marveling at how they were able to move so quickly and not end up in one or another of the shifting tidepools. Cats were so careful that way.
Crystal squatted down and overturned the rest of the contents of the can onto the ground, using her plastic fork to get every last fishy bit out for them. She could not see them, but she could sense that they were nearby. Near enough so that when she returned to the trail they could pounce on the food and finally have their share.
There, she thought, straightening up, feeling proud of her idea. If this worked, she might have to do it this way for a while. Until they learned to trust her. Until they realized she was only there to help them.
About five feet away from her, the black cat appeared, watching her balefully. Still holding the empty can and plastic fork, Crystal backed away, hoping it would come nearer. Intent on the cat, she did not pay attention to where she was going. She did not notice the spongy ground until her foot sank down and brown water seeped into her shoe. “Oh, no,” she cried, muffling her voice at the last minute. She jumped back and looked down at her feet ruefully. One of her shoelaces was soaked, and she could feel her socks wet inside her shoes. Crystal sighed.
The sanctuary was alive now with the twitter of birds, and the sky was turning a yellow-gray color. Crystal stared into the swampy pool, trying to think what to do. If she went back to the house to change her socks and shoes, she would miss the bus. But if she wore these wet socks all day, she would surely catch a cold and have to stay home, and then who would come out and feed the cats?
So intent was she on solving this dilemma that it took her a few moments of staring into the murky water to realize that the dark shape below the pattern of sodden rushes was not a rock covered with seaweed. The undulating tendrils on the pale surface was hair. The dun-colored rock had eyeholes. The long stick was not a branch, but a bone. Crystal flailed out and jumped back, her heart pounding a tattoo. She was too frightened to scream. For a moment she thought the thing would rear up out of the water and come toward her. The skeleton remained where it was, trapped, facedown in the pool, ensnared by the fallen branches, the stiff grasses. Crystal began to cry. “Mommy,” she whimpered to the rustling reeds, to the wind. “Mommy.” She shivered uncontrollably in her wet socks.
Dale Matthews, chief of the Bayland Police Department, made a smooth, right-hand turn into the unpaved parking lot nearest to the nature preserve and parked his blue Lincoln between two black-and-white police cars, their radios squawking. He’d been here on the scene most of the morning but had had to leave to give a scheduled speech to the local Rotary Club luncheon. While he was gone, the search of the preserve had continued under the direction of his senior detective, Walter Ference. The chief had checked on his radio after leaving the luncheon and learned that despite the intensive search, joined by police from several surrounding towns, no other bodies had turned up—only the skeletal remains that had been found by the schoolgirl out feeding kittens.
As Chief Matthews slid from behind the wheel of his car he was accosted by a frizzy-haired woman wearing a “Recycling or Else” button and leading a group of four women wearing similar buttons. Dale waved a placating hand at her. The woman ignored the greeting.
“How much longer,” she demanded in a shrill voice, “are you people going to keep this up? This is a fragile ecosystem. There are men clomping in and out of these marshes in boots, raking through the grasses, totally disturbing the environment. We have some very rare species of birds nesting in these marshes. You have got to put a stop to this.”
Dale’s smooth, unlined face wore a patient expression. “Just as soon as we can, madam, we’ll be out of here,” he said politely.
“You people are ravaging this sanctuary,” she cried, her small but indignant band of fellow protesters nodding in agreement. “We insist that you call off these pillaging hordes right now.”
“Madame,” said Dale in a soothing tone, “these ‘pillagers’ are simply policemen doing their job. We are looking for bodies. We have to put human beings before the birds in this case.”
“That’s what’s wrong with this world,” the woman snorted. “If we put the birds first, we’d be a lot better off.”
Dale smiled graciously. “Perhaps you’re right,” he said. “Will you excuse me now?” He was relieved to look up and see his man in charge, Lieutenant Ference, and George Jansen, a local retired GP who was serving as medical examiner, coming out of the preserve and heading in his direction. Chief Matthews walked toward them waving a kid glove in greeting. He stepped gingerly, trying not to kick up too much sand that would grind the shine right off his good black oxfords.
Dale knew perfectly well that a lot of people in Bayland thought he was too young to be chief of police, and that an experienced local cop should have gotten the job over an outsider. But, he reflected, in addition to having the education and the credentials, he had something that a lot of these older guys lacked—tact, diplomacy, and a way with words. Like his speech at lunch. Or the way he’d handled the environmental nuts just then. You had to be someone at ease in any circle.
Doc Jansen and Walter Ference had their shoulders hunched against the chilly October day as they approached him. Walter was dressed in a substantial wool jacket, but he had the graying, anemic look of a man who would really feel the cold, no matter what he wore. Even his steel-rimmed glasses looked as if they were frosted over. The only part of his face that was not that same bloodless gray was the wedge-shaped scar that formed a dent over his left eyebrow. It had turned a vaguely purplish hue. The doctor, on the other hand, in addition to being a good fifty pounds overweight, had the shiny pink complexion of a man who chased the chill with abundant food and drink.