Dear Killer (Marley Clark Mysteries)

BOOK: Dear Killer (Marley Clark Mysteries)
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Dear
Killer

 

Linda Lovely

 

Published
by

LHI

Seneca
,
South Carolina

***

2
nd
Digital & Trade Paperback Edition, 2013

Cover
and Interior Design by LHI

 

1st Digital
& Trade Paperback Edition, 2011, L&L Dreamspell

1
st
Mass Market Edition, 2013, Harlequin Worldwide Mystery

 

Copyright © 2011 Linda Lovely. All rights reserved. No part
of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright
holder, except for brief quotations used in a review.

This is a work of fiction, and is produced from the author’s
imagination. People, places and things mentioned in this novel are used in a
fictional manner.

Reviews

‘A Lively, Lovely Lowcountry Mystery’

Lowcountry Weekly Editor
Margaret Evans

 

“For my money, few things in life are more deliciously
satisfying than curling up with a good mystery. … But please note: I did say a
“good” mystery – emphasis on “good” – and I’m a fairly demanding critic. I
require a distinctive setting, a large, colorful cast of suspects, a memorable
hero/heroine I can root for, and a plot that keeps me breathlessly turning
pages and guessing ‘til the end. Oh, and the writing must be impeccable.

“I’m happy to inform my readers that Linda Lovely’s new
mystery novel “Dear Killer” meets all my requirements, and then some! Snappy
writing? Check. Dynamic heroine? Check. Vivid array of suspects? Check, check,
check! Interesting setting? I’ll say. And not only is it interesting… it’s
familiar. “Dear Killer” is set in the SC Lowcountry, featuring names and places
you’re guaranteed to recognize. Lovely, a former resident of Fripp Island,
doesn’t scrimp on the fun-to-spot details.”

…“And it’s all great fun!”

 

Romancing
the Book Reviews
—‘Lovely Rose’ Rating

“…had me hooked right from the
first page.”

“…the author has a wonderful way
of illustrating this small quaint island so much so that if I didn’t already
live in paradise, I’d be packing my bags for
South
Carolina
.”

“As an *ahem* older woman, it was
wonderful to not only have an intelligent older woman as a lead character but
also see a relationship develop. And not some stodgy ‘Let’s take evening walks
then watch the news’ type of relationship.”

Note
To Readers

While Hollis County, South
Carolina
, and its inhabitants are
fictional, I’ve tried to make my setting faithful to the charming character of
the Lowcountry—its diverse landscapes, wildlife, colorful Gullah culture, and
vibrant yet checkered development history. I lived in the Lowcountry for more
than a dozen years and loved every minute of it.

To anchor readers, I mention a handful of real locations—the
Town of Beaufort, Hilton Head, Parris Island. Yet, even here, I detour from
reality. For instance, the establishments my heroine visits in Hilton Head are
imaginary.

I took more liberties regarding non-lethal weaponry. I
needed an electronic control device that provided no hint of ownership when
fired. Since it seemed plausible some Eastern European manufacturer might
produce such an item, I added another fiction.

While I have no first-hand knowledge of the illegal
activities in DEAR KILLER. I once wrote newsletter articles for an
international investigative firm and interviewed experts about measures to
thwart would-be scam artists. My plot taps this research.

My best friend from childhood, Major (Retired) Arlene
Underwood, trained as a Polish linguist and spent most of her Army career in
military intelligence. She generously provided background on her Army days to
add depth to my heroine’s biography. Any errors regarding my portrayal of
military life are mine alone.

Writing fiction frees the imagination. Yet novels do attempt
to portray characters, their challenges and conflicts truthfully. I hope
readers will identify with my 52-year-old heroine, applaud Marley Clark’s zest
for life, and want to join her for future adventures.

 

Linda Lovely

Dedication

For Tom Hooker,

my husband and steadfast
partner in life’s many adventures.

I couldn’t ask for a
better friend.

 

Acknowledgements

I’ll start with family. Thanks to
my husband, my sister, Rita Mann, and my nieces, Tammy Nowling and Brenda Mann,
for reading early drafts. Also, a shout-out to my great-nephew, Braden Mann,
for allowing me to pinch his distinctive name for my hero.

Major (Retired) Arlene Underwood,
a dear friend since kindergarten, deserves thanks for contributing details to
help flesh out my heroine’s Army experience. Also, a salute to my warm-hearted
Lowcountry friends—Sue Collins, the Haught family, Sally Hendricks, La Rose
Smith, and Sandy Foster—who not only helped introduce me to coastal culture
and treasures but continue to welcome me when I visit.   My critique partners
deserve a ton of gratitude. Having exchanged manuscripts with many talented
writers, I hope I don’t leave anyone out. But Maya Reynolds, who’s stuck with
me the longest, deserves an extra star for her plot suggestions, as does Robin
Weaver, who’s helped me do a much better job of weaving romance into my
mysteries. Nonetheless, all of the writers listed here have helped enormously
(and I hope will continue to do so) with astute comments and red pencils: Donna
Campbell, Danielle Dahl, Polly Iyer, Howard Lewis, Jean Robbins, Helen Turnage,
and Ellis Vidler.

***

One

The wrought-iron gates stood open—again. The college kids
assigned to lock up were zero for three this week. I sighed, switched on my
flashlight, and walked toward the swimming pools. One more chink in the
resort’s security armor for vandals to exploit.

I noticed a smudge of light on the horizon and a twinge of
unease crept over me. Hilton Head Island snaked into the ocean about twenty
miles south, as a pelican flies, and its neon glitz cast a yellow pall over the
velvet blackness. Normally our resort has too many competing halogens to detect
a neighbor’s light pollution.

Three lights in the Dolphin Club were out. It was too dark.
Goose bumps raced up my arms. Something was hinky. Frozen in a cabana archway,
I listened for any sound, some hint an intruder lurked in the shadows. Only
gurgling water and a chorus of tree frogs broke the silence.

Sweeping my beam over the three-pool terrain, I strained to
catch any movement. All was still. A second pass spotlighted an anomaly:
clothing piled on a chair beside the Jacuzzi.

I walked closer, then paused as a shadowy blot rippled the
surface of the water. It took a second to grasp someone floated face down. I
sprinted. My feet made crunching noises as my shoes pulverized glass from the
broken lamps.

No, no, no. Please don’t let him be dead.

I thought “him” even though it was impossible to tell if the
body belonged to a man or woman. A shock of hair streamed from the submerged
head. Pale bony shoulders gleamed in the moonlight. When I grabbed the body
under the armpits and hoisted it over the hot tub’s lip, the man’s head lolled
backward.

Oh, God.

Stew Hartwell’s gray eyes were wide open, though sightless.
I felt for a pulse. Nothing. I went on autopilot, pinching his nostrils shut,
using two fingers to feel for any obstructions in his mouth.

I put my lips to his. They were warm. The Jacuzzi’s
one-hundred-four-degree water had left them soft and yielding. I blew, paused,
blew. A rhythm.
Breathe, dammit, breathe, dammit, breathe.

Nothing. My heart raced.

I rolled Stew on his stomach and pounded his back to expel
water in his lungs. I flipped him and attacked his chest with my fist, trying
to kick-start his heart. I put my lips to his once more. His mouth felt clammy
now. Still, I tried to force more of my ragged gasps into his unresponsive
lungs.

Come on, breathe.

Nothing. After five minutes, I gave up. Sweat trickled down
my back. My face was damp and I realized I was crying. My breath came in
labored pants.
Oh, Stew. I’m sorry.

Years ago, my husband, Jeff, struck up a friendship with
Stew. Whenever we visited the island, the two got together—poker, golf, Sunday
football on Stew’s big-screen. He was one of the good guys.

Now he’s dead. Like Jeff.

My hot breath—wasted breath—rose in white puffs and mingled
with the steam escaping the bubbling cauldron. The cool ocean breeze quickly
wicked all warmth away.

I pulled a radio from my pocket and called Gary, the
security guard on the front gate. “It’s Marley Clark. I’m at the Dolphin. We
have a drowning. I tried to revive him, but he’s gone. Call EMS anyway.”

“Who drowned?” Gary asked. “Is it a kid?”

I didn’t answer. Though it was three in the morning, some
sleepless codger might be amusing himself, listening to a police scanner. It
wasn’t rational, but I hesitated to say Stew’s name aloud. If I kept quiet,
maybe he wouldn’t be dead.

“Sorry, Gary. I can’t talk now. Get someone to wake up Chief
Dixon. The front entrance is wide open. I’ll stay with the body.”

Before Gary could ask more questions, I clicked the radio
off.

Enough questions assaulted my brain. Stew was totally nude.
What a way for your dead body to be discovered.

Of course, he was long past caring about decorum. That made
the plume of sandy hair drifting from his head seem even sadder. The man let
the baby-fine hair on one temple grow long for a classic comb-over. The result,
like every comb-over, made me wonder if men who favored this camouflage
technique shared a vampire’s aversion to mirrors.

What possessed you to go skinny-dipping alone in the
middle of the night?

During my resuscitation attempts, I’d dragged Stew most of
the way out of the hot tub. However, his hips still rested on the Jacuzzi’s
curved ledge, and his legs dangled in the swirling water, giving them an eerie
animation. His limp penis, withered from its extended submersion, showed no
such life. It looked forlorn nested in its mat of brown pubic hair.

I was tempted to cover Stew. Provide him with some final
dignity. But I knew better than to mess further with the scene. My attempts to
resuscitate Stew had mucked things up enough. The unusual circumstances would
certainly qualify the drowning as a suspicious death.

I looked away from Stew’s torso. His feet continued to bob
and the obscene jig drew my attention to the hot tub’s water.

What the hell?
I saw a carrot first. Orange and
large, it bobbed to the surface by his toes. I watched in disbelief as the
roiling water spit up celery stalks, whole onions and what looked like bay
leaves. Gradually I realized a potpourri of vegetables simmered in the bubbling
pot.

Sweet Jesus.
What is this—a sick joke?

I looked wildly about to make sure I was alone. I’d been
kneeling, and as I stumbled to my feet, I saw blood on the concrete. My own.
Shards of broken glass protruded from my knees and blood soaked the khaki
slacks of my guard uniform.

That’s when I noticed the towels, folded to form an arrow.
It pointed to a patch of sand.

The Dolphin’s designers had inserted sand and palm oases to
break up the sea of concrete that cradled the complex’s swimming pools. A crude
message was scratched in the nearest greenery-and-dune pod.

Just one word: “STEWED.”

My mind went numb. Nothing made sense. Had some psycho
drowned Stew just to make a gruesome pun?

I remembered angry-looking punctures on Stew’s back when I
rolled him. Seizing his left shoulder, I eased his body up. Four marks embossed
his pale back. Two close together, another two six inches away.

“Goddammit.”

Nausea swept over me. I could barely imagine Stew’s terror
if my hunch proved correct. The crimson pricks looked like fresh stun jabs. I’d
seen similar marks on my own body. When the Dear Island security officers were
issued Tasers, our training required a demonstration. I’d been “volunteered”
and knew firsthand the pole-axed feeling of having my limbs turn to jelly, of
being aware of everything yet having a total disconnect between mind and body.
I shivered, wondering if Stew had been fully cognizant of his fate, his brain
frantically screaming at unresponsive muscles as his killer prepared to drown
him.

I lowered Stew’s shoulder, backed out of the crime scene
along my original entry route, and prepared to intercept Chief Dixon and the EMS
paramedics. They needed to understand the circumstances to avoid adding
contaminants.

The wait would be brief. Dear Island’s only five miles long
and one and one-half miles wide. It took less than ten minutes to drive between
any two points. And, yes, Dear Island is spelled D-E-A-R. Pre-1970 maps showed
it as Deer Island. That was before it succumbed to a developer’s spelling
disorder or cuteness fetish. Having met my share of Lowcountry developers,
either theory seemed plausible.

My manhandling of Stew’s body had drenched me. My teeth
clattered like castanets, and my knees throbbed. Congealed blood plastered my
trousers to my legs. I plucked slivers of broken glass from the fabric.
Anything to keep from looking at Stew. I fast-walked in tight circles, rubbing
my hands to conjure up heat.

Paramedic Bill O’Brien was the first to charge on the scene.
“Where’s the victim?” he yelled as he hustled in my direction.

“He’s dead,” I answered. “No pulse. I tried mouth-to-mouth.
Nothing.”

“I’ll give it a go anyway. Lead the way.”

“Okay but this isn’t a routine drowning. Stew Hartwell’s
been murdered. We need to think about the crime scene.”

“Murdered? Are you sure?”

Bill’s tone telegraphed skepticism. Residents took smug
pride in the fact that Dear Island didn’t have enough crime to warrant keeping
statistics. There was the occasional theft as well as a smattering of
complaints about inebriated idiots, usually vacationers or “tourons” in island
speak. But a murder? Never.

Chief Dixon arrived in time to hear our exchange. “What in
hell are you saying, Marley?” Dixon demanded.

We stood under the nearest functioning lamppost about twenty
feet from Stew’s body. The pooled light haloed Dixon’s frizzy white hair,
making him look like Ronald McDonald’s grizzled grandpa.

While I summed up the situation, Bill tiptoed to the steamy
six-person Jacuzzi. As a paramedic, he was qualified to pronounce Stew dead.
After doing so, he studied the body and pointed out some bruising around Stew’s
wrists.

“Zip ties?” the chief wondered. “D’you suppose the killer
tied his wrists while he was out for the count and cut ’em loose once he was
dead?”

Bill nodded. “That’s my guess.”

Dixon rang the Hollis County Sheriff’s Department to say we
needed help pronto.

The chief’s ruddy face looked more mottled than usual, hinting
at a bout of drinking or elevated blood pressure. He shook his head, hawked one
up, and started to spit before he thought better of it. “Jesus H. Christ, you
think someone fried Stew with a stunner in order to drown him? That’s just
dandy. Suppose that’ll make all our boys prime suspects.”

The same notion had crossed my mind—though I didn’t think of
Dear’s security force as “our boys.” It was no secret the chief preferred to
hire men. Yet he figured my military career trumped my gender, so he overlooked
my inability to scratch my nuts with the rest of his boys.

I paced off fifteen feet and circled the Jacuzzi, scanning
the barren concrete. “Chief, the killer didn’t use a Taser. Even civilian
models eject those confetti-like markers that I.D. each weapon. Our murderer
couldn’t have picked them all up. Fortunately, that rules our weapons out.”

“Eh? Speak up, will you?” An ex-Marine, Dixon blamed his
poor hearing on close encounters with exploding shells. The counterfeit
waterfall’s gurgling wasn’t helping him. “Who else packs stunners—just other
cops, right?”

I raised my voice a notch. “Anyone willing to part with a
few hundred bucks can buy stun guns or Tasers on the Internet. But I haven’t a
clue about all the options.”

Dixon looked back at the body and cracked his knuckles.
“Stew Hartwell. Who on earth would want to kill him?” The chief’s interest in
the body seemed strictly clinical; someone else would have to mourn the loss.

Poor Stew. My stomach did another samba. Then a white-hot
anger flared in my gut. Stew didn’t deserve to die like this—a gothic comic
book ending.

“If only I’d patrolled this area sooner…”

“Forget it, Marley, you couldn’t have saved him,” the chief
said. “If you’d come earlier, you might be dead, too.”

Until the chief answered, I hadn’t realized I’d spoken
aloud.

“You may have been one hot shot Army colonel, but even you
can’t bring back the dead.”

Well, yes, once I could.

I was sixteen, a lifeguard. The boy was nine, chubby. When I
hauled him from the depths, his lips were tinged with blue, as if the aqua
water had dyed them. I breathed life into him. His fat cheeks turned from blue
to pink like Mom’s hydrangeas after she added lime.

Life seemed effortless then. I could cheat death. No longer.
The living slipped away.

I blinked away the vision to concentrate on Dixon’s
monologue. “You know if someone hadn’t gotten cute, we might’ve figured he was
an unlucky drunk who drowned ’cause he was three sheets to the wind.” He ran a
hand through his hair. “Stew was known to knock back a few, and the hot tub
sign is plastered with warnings for boozers. Guess the vegetables were meant to
clue us in. Whoever killed Stew knew him, or at least his name.”

The churning murderer’s cauldron bubbled away without a
conscience. How had the killer jimmied the timer to keep the Jacuzzi jets
active? Tendrils of steam drifted from the super-sized hot tub.

“Jesus,” I muttered. “What kind of sicko would dream this
up?”

Dixon shrugged. “I suppose those are Stew’s clothes. What
possessed him to strip? Or do you think the killer undressed him?”

From our vantage point, we could see the clothing piled on
the chair nearest his body. Car keys and a wallet sat atop Bermuda shorts.

“Say, is Stew’s car parked out front?” Dixon asked.

“I’ll go check.” An urge to escape the insanity for a moment
drove me to volunteer. “There’s a tan Volvo parked on the far side of the lot.
It could be Stew’s.”

***

After verifying the solitary car belonged to the victim, we
cordoned off the crime scene and set up emergency floodlights to illuminate the
area.

Three guards had joined Dixon and me. Two were fuzzy-cheeked
youngsters, locals who wanted a job where they wouldn’t stink of fish or have
to kowtow to tourists. Carrying a gun was a big bonus. I was the same age as
their mommas so they ma’amed me to death. Dirty jokes tended to die on their
lips as I approached. Tonight their nervous laughter teetered toward hysteria.
Laughing at death is a reflex as well as a cliché.

Dixon grimaced when a cacophony of sirens announced the
arrival of the Hollis County Sheriff and his mainland coterie. “Think they’d
have more sense,” he mumbled. “Might as well have used a bullhorn. This racket
is bound to bring out all the Nosey Parkers.”

Sure enough, lights clicked on in a smattering of the pricey
homes hovering above the poolscape. Perched atop stilt-like piers, the
silhouetted bungalows resembled scrawny cranes.

BOOK: Dear Killer (Marley Clark Mysteries)
11.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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