Four years in vice at the Seattle PD and Sheriff 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 single daily dose of sin – thick-as-sludge Turkish coffee -- and looking out at the patchy curtains of fog hanging over Lake Massey, eighteen hundred acres of man-made lake, like every other lake in Maryland. 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 its 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-small mouth 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 row boat floating in and out of the gray fog well over 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. Could they be out fishing this early in the morning? She started to turn away when one of the figures abruptly stood, waved a fist in the other’s face, and brought his 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 with the oar in his hands 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 looked at his oar. Checking for blood? He straightened, threw his head back, and pumped his fist.
The shock of seeing a cold-blooded murder had Ty’s heart pumping hard. She’d been helpless to stop it. The left side of her brain registered that the fist-shaker had brought the other man out in the lake to kill him and that made it pre-meditated, but her heart still kettle-drummed in her chest as she watched the killer row smooth and steady back toward shore, 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 a murder on a row boat in the lake a minute ago. One man struck another with an oar and threw him overboard. Yes, you heard me right. No, I couldn’t tell who it was or what sex he was. 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, binoculars, pulled on gloves as she ran down her twenty wooden stairs, raced down 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 man overboard, and floored it. Within four minutes she was at the edge of a sheet of fog watching three mallards swim out of the fog 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 at the fog, “Clear off, clear off.” Miraculously, within minutes, only wisps of fog dotted the water around her. As for the fist-waver in the row boat, he was long gone, the off-shore 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 thirty feet above the water to document her own location. 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 still too thick off-shore to make out any sign of the row boat. Through a small pocket in the fog, 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-waver could dock the row boat at any of the dozens of cottages lining the beach, tie up and run, or pull the row boat up onto the sand, hide it in bushes, and then disappear. He probably didn’t know she’d seen him. Had both people in the boat been staying in one of the rental cottages?
She called her head 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 row boat and interview all the cottage tenants. Most of the 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 six 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, the three boats of the Lake Rescue Team circles her and cut their engines. All four members of the team were life-long 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 five years before Ty had accepted the city council’s offer to become Willicott’s first woman sheriff in the town’s long, fairly peaceful, history.
Mizera shouted, “Sheriff, Marla said you saw someone get wacked 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. I was too far away to see if he’d wrapped a brick around the body to keep it down.” She pointed to the far shore. “The last I saw of the killer, he was rowing as fast as he could toward the eastern shore. I couldn’t see where he went because of the fog.”
Harlette Hensen, a retired nurse, currently a grandmother to six hell-raisers and owner of Harlette’s 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. What I saw was a pre-meditated murder. He rowed the man out in the lake, whacked him, dumped him, and pumped his fist.”
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. “More likely he was weighted down.” Congo was the owner of Bliss’s Diner, going on twenty-five years now, known far and wide for his meat loaf and garlic mashed potatoes. He was tall, fit, good-looking, going on fifty, and as proud of his physique as his meat loaf. Congo was on his fourth wife and his fourth rat terrier, all four dogs choosing to depart with the wives. More importantly, 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 Congo brought up a present for Harlette and tossed it to her. Harlette caught it, let out a yell, then gave a curse. “Not funny, Congo.” She held up the skull he’d thrown to her. “This sure isn’t your guy, Sheriff. 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. Monroe later. Right now we need to find the man I saw murdered an hour ago.”
She handed the skull to Henry Sharp, owner of Sharp’s Sporting Goods, who was with Harlette in her boat. He was the designated provider of any necessary water equipment and once a champion swimmer. Henry looked like he wanted to hurl, but knew 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 tried for a manly smile.
“You said it was a row boat,” Harlette said, shading her hand over her eyes as she searched the water. “Did you recognize it, Sheriff? 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, Sheriff. Everyone in town had a good laugh.” He looked down at his watch. “Sorry, sheriff, I can’t do any more dives, I gotta get back to the diner. Willie’s the only cook there and 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 her deputy, 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 and Hanger the exact spot. And Charlie, be on the look-out for loose bones, Congo found a skull when he dived to look for the man I saw shoved overboard.”
Gatewood stood on Point Gulliver, a low promontory that stuck out into Lake Massey like a fat thumb. It was the perfect movie poster for the classic haunted house, made of unrelieved pale gray stone quarried from Scarletville, sixty miles east. There was a wide porte cochere along the side, a detached garage beside it. The driveway wound through the trees to a narrow two-lane road. There was a long, skinny beach of pebbled coarse brown sand dotted with tumbled piles of driftwood and rocks strewn about. A long dock that looked ready to collapse stretched fifteen feet over the water.
A half dozen oak trees faced the lake, stalwart sentinels, misshapen and bowed from years of winter storms. A wide gray stone path led from the dock to six deeply indented stone front steps. The porch was narrow, and Savich could see from twenty feet away that vandals had ripped up many of its dark wooden planks.
Savich paused, stepped back, studied the house, and opened his mind. He felt nothing but the sun’s warmth on his face and a cool breeze off the lake. He’d bet the gray stone hadn’t looked this grim when people still lived here. He could picture colorful flowers in the beds and boxes hanging from the ceiling of the porch, a rich green lawn, a good-sized boat tied up at the dock. He turned slowly and looked back over the lake. He pictured the murderer wearing a ball cap and dark jacket, rowing the Green Gaiter through the early morning fog away from the dock. Had he forced Ryan to hold still while he tied weights around her body to keep her under once he’d killed her? Why hadn’t she fought him? Had he parked a car in the porte cochere? Or hidden it in the garage? What did he do with the oar he’d struck her with? There had to be blood on his jacket. What did he do with it?
Ty pointed. ‘That’s my house, directly across. See the dash of bright red? That’s rhododendron in one of my flower boxes.”
Savich stowed the questions for the moment. “you’ve got quite a location.”
“I was lucky. The lady who lived at Bluebell Cottage – no, there aren’t any bluebells around here – decided to move to Florida. She gave me a great deal. Let’s have a look at the Green Gaiter.”
They walked the stone path down a slight incline covered with tall blue lobelias, pale purplish-pink Joe-Pye weeds, swatches of black-eyed Susans, and other plants Ty couldn’t identify. Charlie walked to the end of the dock and pointed out and down. They saw the hazy outline of the Green Gaiter, sitting upright on the rocky bottom some fifteen feet down. A simple rowboat, its only distinctive feature the acid-green paint job. Charlie said, “I don’t see any oars. I guess they floated away.”
Ty said, “Even if we recover the oar he used to kill her, it wouldn’t help, the lake water would have washed it clean.”
Savich said, “I gather you haven’t been inside the house?”
Charlie shook his head. “No reason to since teenagers found the rowboat in the water.”
She paused on the first step and turned toward Charlie. “Charlie, would you stay here, keep a lookout for the FBI forensic team?” Since he’d been raised on the stories of Gatewood’s bloody history, she imagined the last thing Charlie wanted to do was go into Gatewood. Charlie looked relieved, but he tried to be cool about it. “Sure, not a problem, Chief, I’ll keep an eye on the Green Gaiter.”
Savich followed the chief and Flynn up the steps onto the wide-oak planked porch and into the house through the double front door, once beautifully carved and now so battered it looked ready to fall off its hinges. It creaked when Flynn pushed it open.
Ty laughed, hating that her voice sounded high and jumpy. She said, “I hope the script doesn’t have us going down the basement stairs.”
Flynn said, “Hey, there are three of us, and we’re armed. No self-respecting ghost would want to take us on.”
Savich stopped dead in his tracks when he stepped into the entrance hall. He felt a bone-numbing cold.