Chapter 1 1
Four years in Vice at the Seattle PD and Police Chief Ty Christie had never seen a murder, until this moment right after dawn on what promised to be a hot, sunny Friday. She was standing on her weathered back deck, sipping her daily dose of sin—thick-as-sludge Turkish coffee—and looking out at the patchy curtains of fog hanging over Lake Massey, man-made, like every other lake in Maryland, 1,800 acres. Lake Massey wasn’t the largest of Maryland’s lakes, or the deepest, only fifty-six feet, but it was still a popular vacation destination with thirty-three miles of shoreline and water warm enough to swim in during the summer. Fishermen loved Lake Massey with its walleye and large- and smallmouth bass eager to leap on their lines. As for Ty, she loved the impossibly thick maple and oak trees, a solid blanket of green covering the hills on the east side of the lake.
The only sign of life was a small rowboat floating in and out of the gray fog nearly a hundred yards away. She could barely make out two figures, seated facing each other, both wearing jackets and one a ball cap. She was too far away to tell if they were male or female, talking or not talking, or how old they were. Could they be out fishing for largemouth bass this early in the morning? She was starting to turn away when one of the figures abruptly stood, waved a fist in the other’s face, and brought an oar down hard on his head.
She froze, simply couldn’t believe what she’d seen. She watched the man slump forward as the fist-shaker leaned over him, jerked him up, and shoved him out of the boat. She yelled, but the killer never looked toward her. Rather, he looked down into the water, then at his oar. Checking for blood? He straightened, threw his head back, and pumped his fist.
Pumped his fist? He was happy he’d killed someone? That made it unlikely to be in the heat of the moment. So she’d seen a cold-blooded murder? Had the fist-shaker brought the other man out in the lake with the intent to kill him? The shock had Ty’s heart kettledrumming in her chest. She watched the killer row smooth and steady back toward shore, quickly disappearing behind a curtain of fog. She hated that her hand was shaking when she pulled her cell out of her shirt pocket and dialed 911. Operator Marla Able always picked up on the first ring. Ty took a deep breath, cleared her throat. “Marla, it’s Ty. I saw what I think was a premeditated murder on a rowboat in the lake a minute ago. One man struck another with an oar and threw him overboard. You heard me right. I think it was a man, but I can’t be sure. Listen now, we’ve got to move fast. Call Ted Mizera, have him order out the Lake Rescue Team. Tell him the boat was about one hundred yards out into the other side of the lake directly across from my house. Tell him to hurry, Marla. I’m going out in my boat now.”
She grabbed a flashlight, a jacket, and binoculars, pulled on gloves as she ran down her twenty wooden stairs, out onto her long, narrow dock, unlooped her mooring lines, and jumped on board her fifteen-foot runabout. She fired up the outboard engine, carefully steered away from the dock, aimed the boat at the spot where the killer had thrown the other person overboard, and floored it. Within four minutes she was at the edge of a sheet of fog, watching three mallards swim toward her, followed by four more, flapping their wings over the still water, then settling in with their brethren.
She slowly motored in, idled the boat, and searched the area with her binoculars, chanting, “Clear off, clear off.” Miraculously, within minutes, only wisps of fog dotted the water around her. As for the fist-shaker in the rowboat, he was long gone, the offshore fog blanketing his escape.
She began searching for the body, praying the person was only dazed and still alive. The water was smooth, the surface unruffled except for the kick-up waves made by her runabout. She cut the engine, pulled out her cell again, and took pictures, but she knew there wasn’t anything to see. She lined up one shot with the ancient oak tree standing sentinel in front of the abandoned Gatewood mansion on Point Gulliver to document her own location. Only its top branches were visible through the fog. She listened carefully but heard only mallards squawking and the soft lapping of the water against the sides of her boat. She scanned the eastern shore with her binoculars, but the fog was too thick offshore to make out any sign of the rowboat. Through a small pocket, she now saw Point Gulliver clearly, the pebbled beach, and Gatewood, three stories of stark gray stone, forbidding in the early morning light, its wooden dock stretching out into the lake. She saw nothing and no one. She knew the fist-shaker could dock the rowboat at any of the dozens of cottages lining the beach, tie up, and run, or pull the rowboat up onto the sand, hide it in bushes, and then disappear. He couldn’t know she’d seen him. Had both people in the boat been staying in one of the rental cottages?
She called her chief deputy, Charlie Corsica, jerked him out of a deep sleep, and told him what had happened. He and the other four deputies would head to the eastern shore, scour the area for the rowboat, and interview all the cottage tenants. Most cottages along the eastern shore were rentals. Some of the vacationers had to be up, someone had to have seen something, even though it was barely 6 a.m. Maybe when her deputies went door to door, they’d find him. Had anything ever been that easy when she’d been in Vice in Seattle? Not that she could remember.
Even though she knew it was hopeless, Ty turned on the engine and began a slow grid search. She saw nothing until minutes later, when the three boats of the Lake Rescue Team circled her and cut their engines. All four members of the team were lifelong residents of Willicott. Ted Mizera, a local contractor, was big, beefy, and strong as a horse, rumored not to spare the rod on his kids. He’d formed the rescue team long before Ty had accepted the city council’s offer to become the first woman police chief in the town’s long, fairly peaceful history.
Mizera shouted, “Chief, Marla said you saw someone get whacked with an oar from your house? You see anything, like a body, since you got out here?”
“If my visual memory serves, I’m near the spot,” she called back, “but so far no sign of a body. After the killer hit the victim on the head with an oar, he dumped the body overboard and rowed back to the eastern shore, toward Point Gulliver. I couldn’t see anything because of all of the fog. I haven’t seen any sign of a body. Did the killer have a brick tied around his victim’s waist? I don’t know, I was too far away.”
Harlette Hensen, a retired nurse, grandmother to six hell-raisers, and owner of Slumber House B&B, shook her bobbed gray head. “You think the killer changed his mind, pulled the man out of the water?”
That was Harlette, always the optimist, wanting to think the best of her fellow man. Ty said, “Sorry, Harlette, I’d have seen it if that had happened. I saw him fist-pump after the victim went overboard, which says to me he rowed his victim out onto the lake to murder him and dump his body. It was premeditated.” She shook her head. “That fist pump. I couldn’t believe it.”
Ted snorted. “Harlette, you wouldn’t recognize the devil even if he perched on your rocker. Ty, I think you’re right. The victim’s probably weighted down. Or maybe held by the water reeds.”
“The reeds aren’t that thick this far out, Ted, too deep,” Congo Bliss said. “I’m betting on a brick tied around the victim’s waist to keep him under.” Congo was the owner of Bliss’s Diner, going on twenty-five years now, known far and wide for his meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes. He was tall, fit, good-looking, going on fifty, and as proud of his physique as of his meatloaf. Congo was on his fourth wife and his fourth rat terrier, all former terriers choosing to depart with the wives. More important, he was the group’s designated diver, and he was already dressed in a partial wetsuit. He spat over the side. “Water’s about twenty-five feet deep here. I’ll do some free dives, see if I can find him before you call Hanger to drag the lake.”
Congo pulled on his mask and fins and made four dives. No sign of the murdered man, but he brought up a present for Harlette and tossed it to her. Harlette caught it, let out a yell, then cursed. “Not funny, Congo.” She held up the skull he’d thrown to her. “This sure isn’t your guy, Chief. I wonder how old this skull is. Could be fifty years, who knows? I haven’t heard of any local disappearing, ever. Some long-ago tourist, you think?”
Ty pulled her boat closer and took the skull from Harlette, turned it over in her hands. “No bullet hole, no crushed bones, and three teeth left. I’ll take the skull to Dr. Staunton later. Right now we need to find the man I saw murdered an hour ago.”
She handed the skull to Albert Sharp, owner of Sharp’s Sporting Goods, with Harlette in her boat. He was the designated provider of any necessary water equipment and once a champion swimmer. Albert looked like he wanted to hurl, but he knew he couldn’t because he’d never live it down. He swallowed half a dozen times. Nobody said anything. He carefully wrapped the skull in his daughter’s blue polka-dot beach towel and laid it on the seat, wiped his hands on his pants, and attempted a manly smile.
“You said it was a rowboat,” Harlette said, shading her eyes with her hand as she searched the water. “Did you recognize it, Chief? Was it one of Bick’s rentals?”
“I was a good ways away, but it could have been. Yes, of course it was—it was painted an odd green, sort of an acid green.”
Congo nodded. “That’s it. I remember Bick got that green paint on sale a decade ago, long before your time, Chief. Everyone in town had a good laugh.” He looked down at his watch. “Sorry, Chief, I can’t do any more dives. I gotta get back to the diner. Willie’s the only cook there. He can’t fry an egg worth spit and he’s always burning the toast.”
Ty thanked them all, sent them home, and set everything in motion. She called Hanger Lewis over in Haggersville, set him up to drag this part of the lake in his ancient pontoon boat with its big dragging net. She called Charlie to check in. Nothing yet, no one had seen anything, no sign of one of Bick’s acid-green rowboats and no sign of anyone who didn’t belong there. She said, “No surprise, though I really did hope someone might have seen something. Okay, Charlie, keep the others scouting the east shore. Hanger will be here in about an hour. You go out with Harlette and Hanger, she’ll show you guys the exact spot. And Charlie, be on the lookout for loose bones. Congo found a skull when he dived to look for the man I saw shoved overboard.”