Thriller Thursdays: BLOOD KIN
November 17, 2011 1 Comment
There’s something to be said for vicariously experiencing suspense. You get that heart racing, edge of your seat, wide-eyed experience without being put in any sort of actual danger. If you know what I’m talking about, and you can’t get enough, well then let me introduce you to Judith E. French.
An award-winning author of over 30 novels, French writes suspense, she writes romance, she writes adventure-packed tales of intrigue. In her Blood series, of which the critically-acclaimed Blood Kin is the first, the romance only serves to heighten the suspense. So if you’re looking for a thrill, read on suspense seekers, and thank the fiction gods that it isn’t you facing the dangers in these ominous pages.
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Tawes Island,Valentine’s Day
Frowning at the slash of orange that had caught his attention, Daniel eased off the marshy bank and out onto the surface of the frozen gut. Ice splintered ominously under his right boot, and he swore. The water here was at least chest-deep, with a good yard or two of black silt beneath—not a spot he wanted to claw his way out of in twenty-degree weather with a ﬁfteen-knot wind. The Chesapeake Bay country was beautiful, but it could kill a man if he wasn’t careful.
Like the senator …?
Senator Joseph Marshall’s disappearance while duck hunting on New Year’s Day had launched a three-week rescue attempt that had drawn worldwide media attention. The coast guard, volunteer ﬁre companies, and the national guard from three states had unsuccessfully searched the bay and every square inch of shoreline of the island and neighboring mainland, to no avail.
Daniel took another step toward the ﬂash of color beneath the ice. Nausea rose in his throat. He exhaled slowly through clenched teeth and swallowed. Joseph Marshall’s face was pressed grotesquely against the underside of two inches of ice. Those shrewd blue eyes were open wide; his mouth gaped in a silent scream. The thick, dark hair he’d worn so fashionably cut and styled streamed out on both sides of ﬂaccid, ﬁsh-bellywhite cheeks and a ragged protruding tongue.
Daniel let his gaze travel down the senator’s submerged body. His guess was that Joe Marshall’s political ambitions had been cut short by a single blast from a twelve-gauge shotgun.
Some might call it island justice.
Bailey clutched at the side of the boat and watched as the dark line on the horizon grew to a vivid patchwork of green and brown. “Is that Tawes?” She raised her voice to be heard above the chug-chug-chug of the smoking motor.
“That’s her.” The only other occupant of the shabby wooden skiff squinted into the sunshine from the shelter of a worn baseball cap, tucked a dab of snuff under his lip, and nodded. “Tawes Island. No other.”
The stubble-chinned skipper’s reply came out as “Nother,” but Bailey was beginning to understand his quaint speech patterns. He’d identiﬁed himself as “Cap’n Creed Somers, but Creed’ll do,” back at the Crisﬁeld Dock where she’d left her car.
“Not what she was,” the garrulous waterman continued. “Ursters and cray’abs about played out. Not like the old days, when my daddy could make a decent living fer his family. You shoulda seen Tawes then. Real ferryboat run ever’ day but the Sabbath, hauling groceries, tray’ctor parts . . .”
Bailey nodded noncommittally as Creed rattled on, his words nearly drowned by the slap of waves and the chug of the noisy motor. She thought she’d smelled alcohol on Creed’s breath and never would have boarded his boat if she’d known that she’d be the only passenger. The trip from Crisﬁeld had taken the better part of an hour, but the aging skiff, which had seemed disreputable back at the dock, had performed faultlessly.
Being out on the water was a novelty for Bailey, and she’d been captivated by the feel of the salt breeze on her face and the haunting cries of laughing gulls. Of all she’d expected to do on summer break, spending a few days on an isolated island in the Chesapeake was deﬁnitely at the bottom of the list; but now that Tawes was a reality and not just a name on the evening news, she felt her excitement rising.
Was it possible that she had been born and put up for adoption here on this tiny island? After years of intense curiosity about her birth family, receiving the letter from Attorney Forest McCready informing her of an inheritance seemed like the plot of a made-for-TV movie. Was it going to be this easy to ﬁnd the answers she’d been seeking all her life? And how had Mc-Cready located her if her adoption records were sealed?
Bailey hoped this wouldn’t prove a case of mistaken identity. She wasn’t getting her hopes up. If the house this unknown great-aunt had supposedly left her was a falling-down shack in a disreputable part of town, she’d simply refuse the bequest, have a good laugh, and go home with a great story to tell Elliott.
“I expect you heard about the excitement here last February,” Creed said, breaking into her thoughts. “That hunting accident? The senator that got shot?”
Bailey nodded. “Yes. I did. On the evening news. And the papers.” How could she not have seen it? When the senior senator from Maryland and the chair of House Appropriations went missing for weeks and then turned up riddled with bullet holes, the media had a ﬁeld day.“A real tragedy,” she said. “Senator Marshall was a native of Tawes, wasn’t he?”
“Born and bred. Knew old Joe pretty well, I did. Should know him. He’s a second cousin on my mama’s side. Course, that was long afore he went off to Harvard and made himself a big name in politics.” Creed spit over the side of the boat.“Ain’t buried here, though. Missus had what was left of him cremated. Set him on her chimney mantel in a fancy jar, I suppose.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “For your loss.”
Creed shrugged.“No need. Joe and me wasn’t what you’d call friends. Like they say, you can’t pick your kin.”
“No, I suppose not.” A buoy bobbed just ahead. Two gulls balanced on the top while a third circled overhead.
“Never voted for him.” Creed slowed the boat to half speed. “Don’t want to throw up a wake coming into the docks.”
Bailey turned her attention to the houses, docks, and boats directly ahead of them. The picturesque harbor looked like a painted scene on a calendar, too pretty to be real. She wished she’d thought to bring her camera. If she’d gotten some good shots, she could have had them blown up and framed to give Elliott for Christmas. The white walls in his Rehoboth Beach apartment were in desperate need of something besides the faded Parrothead poster and the menu of the nearest Chinese takeout restaurant.
“Pretty, ain’t she?” Creed asked. “Gives me the chills ever’ time I come in.”
Two little boys crabbing off the ﬁrst dock looked up and waved.
Creed waved back. “Make sure them jimmies is legal size!” he shouted. “Don’t want the law on you.”
The smallest child, a freckled redhead, reached into a bushel basket and held up a huge wiggling blue claw. “Got half a basket already, Cap’n Creed!”
Creed grinned and touched the bill of his cap in mock salute. “Time was only poor folks bothered with hard crabs,”he said. “Soft crabs, now, there’s a different story. Finest eatin’to be had. Dust your crab in ﬂour, fry it up golden brown . . .” He rubbed his thumb and foreﬁnger together. “Add some salt and pepper, a little ’mater and lettuce if you got it, and slap it between two pieces of homemade bread.”
“Oh, look,” Bailey exclaimed. A brown duck paddled out from under a dock with a string of fuzzy yellow and brown babies in her wake. “There must be a dozen of them.”
“Hey!” A barefoot girl in denim cutoffs and a green John Deere T-shirt lowered her net and waved from the shallows.
“Hey, yourself, Maggie!” Creed replied.
She laughed, revealing a missing front tooth. Water dripped from her net, and Bailey could see a mass of wiggling creatures inside.
“Grass shrimp,” Creed said. “Maggie’s planning on going ﬁshing.”
Bailey glanced around for an adult but saw no one except a man unloading crab pots from a boat a few hundred feet away. “Those children really should be wearing life vests,” she said. “This water looks deep.”
“Deep enough,” Creed agreed, “but they’re island young’uns. Swim afore they can walk, most of’m. They look out for one another.” He cut his engine and let the boat drift slowly against a weathered post. “This is it, far as I can take you.”
Pigtails ﬂying behind her, Maggie ran out on the dock to catch Creed’s bowline, pulled it taut, and wrapped it around a cleat.
“Obliged,” the skipper said. “Tell your mama I said thanks for that mess of green beans she sent over.” He set Bailey’s overnight bag on the dock. “Be a good girl and show the lady where Miss Emma’s house is.”
“That’s her, ain’t it?” The laughing innocence vanished, replaced by a hostile wariness.
“Mind your manners,” Creed admonished. “Ma’am, she’ll show you to the boardinghouse.” He stepped up onto the dock and offered Bailey a calloused hand. “I usually make a run two, three times a week to Crisﬁeld, but if you need a ride sooner, get Miss Emma to let me know.”
Bailey thanked him and smiled at the frowning child. “I’m Miss Bailey Elliott. I’m pleased to meet you, Maggie.”
Bailey tried again. Nine years of teaching fourth grade had taught her how to break the ice with shy children.“Are you having fun on your summer vacation?”
Maggie spun and retreated down the dock. Bailey glanced over her shoulder at Creed, but his back was to them, so she picked up her case and followed her reluctant guide. Maggie trotted down three steps to a grassy path between two crumbling frame structures with boarded-up windows. Behind the buildings, a wider path led across an open lot to a narrow oyster-shell street lined with trees and modest Victorian-style homes. Clapboard two-storied farmhouses with wide porches, white picket fences, and yards bursting with ﬂowers, small garden plots, and grapevine trellises added to the picturesque charm and atmosphere of the village.
Bailey stopped and stared in astonishment at a brown-and-white Shetland pony and yellow, two-wheeled cart standing in front of a tiny brick house with a steep roof and smoke drifting from a wide chimney. Horse-drawn wagons? Was this a town or a movie set?
In her brief telephone conversation with Attorney McCready, he’d warned her that Tawes had no automobiles, no hotels, restaurants, not even a police force, but what that meant really hadn’t sunk in. How was it possible that such isolation existed so close to Baltimore, Washington, and the increasingly populated Eastern Shore? “Do people really use horses to get around on the island?” Bailey asked.
Maggie pouted and marched on. A ﬂop-eared hound, tail wagging, materialized from a boxwood hedge and barked at them.
A front door opened and a shrill voice called, “Belle! Come back here!” Obediently, the dog turned back toward the house. Bailey smiled and waved, but the gray-haired woman in the ﬂowered housedress and apron only stared, folded her arms over her ample bosom, and slammed the door.
“You must not have a lot of tourists here,” Bailey said.
Maggie kept walking without saying a word.
The yards grew wider, and the simple homes gave way to more substantial ones of brick. One eighteenthcentury house with shutters, a sweeping lawn, and massive oak trees was surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. A small bronze nameplate on the gate read, FOREST MCCREADY, ESQUIRE. The only sign of life was a boy cutting the side lawn with an old-fashioned push mower.
Bailey glanced curiously at the elegant stone steps and white pillared porch. She was tempted to go up and knock at the door, but her appointment with the lawyer wasn’t until three o’clock. He might be with another client or still at lunch, and besides, she really needed to freshen up after her boat ride. She didn’t want to appear rude by arriving an hour and a half early.
The thought of lunch made her realize how empty she felt. She hadn’t had anything to eat since she’d grabbed a cup of coffee and a mufﬁn at the Wawa in Dover, and she was starving. “I’ve come to see Mr. Mc-Cready,” she said. Maggie might have been deaf for all the reaction she offered.
They passed several more homes that could easily have been on the National Register of Historic Places, one that had obviously been uninhabited for years. Another, a Greek Revival, had a large sailboat on blocks in the backyard.
The street meandered along the shoreline so that the homes on Bailey’s right now faced the water. A wide side street opened on the left, but the houses along that way were smaller, less imposing, and set back from the road. They hurried past a lovely old red-brick church and enclosed cemetery, another row of frame houses, and a grove of cedars that ran down to the beach. The street forked, with one branch narrowing and spanning a wooden bridge over a creek on her left, while the main thoroughfare continued on past a hard-packed dirt parking lot and a square two-story brick building with a weathered sign that proclaimed:
Groceries, kerosene, tobacco and feed
Fishing tackle, jeans, boat parts, and seed
Bait, crab nets, shells, and whatever you need!
Authorized John Deere dealer
And if you bellyache my price is too high,
Do your dealing in Crisﬁeld, like my brother Ty!
Two middle-aged men in worn ball caps stood on the wide concrete stoop outside the general store. Both turned to stare pointedly and whisper to each other before touching the bills of their hats and hurrying inside. Bailey felt her cheeks grow warm. She could have sworn they were talking about her. This odd behavior was making her uncomfortable, and she wondered if she should have insisted Elliott come along with her. Even if she had been born here, she didn’t know a soul on the island, and they certainly couldn’t all know why she was here. Could they?
“Bailey Elliott?”The screen door opened and a stocky woman stepped out. Her graying hair was twisted into a no-nonsense bun, and she wore a gingham apron over a blue checked housedress and knee-high rubber boots. “God a’mighty, Creed’s getting slower and slower. I expected you here for dinner, girl!”
“That’s Miss Emma,” Maggie said before dashing back the way they’d come.
“Emma Parks?” Bailey asked. “Yes, yes, I’m Bailey Elliott.”
“About time you got here.” Emma’s doughy face was lined and weathered, her whiskey voice as husky as a man’s, but Bailey was instantly charmed by the older woman’s warm smile and the mischievous sparkle in her guileless blue eyes. “Need help with your suitcase?” Emma shifted a bulging grocery bag from one arm to the other and extended her free hand. “I’ll be glad to carry it for—”
“No. No.” Bailey laughed. “I’m ﬁne. Do we have far to—”
“Just down a piece.” She hurried down the steps, wiped her hand on her apron, and offered it. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Bailey.”
She murmured something in reply as Emma’s calloused hand closed on hers in a visegrip.
“I hope you’re hungry. I’ve got fried chicken, biscuits, green beans, and red potatoes keeping warm on the back of the stove. And a fresh-baked blueberry pie. I didn’t make it, mind you. I’m not the pie baker my mama is—Mama does all the baking—but I’m not a bad cook. Not a soul on Tawes can match my crab cakes, but my pie crust . . .” Emma shook her head. “Not ﬁt for pigs. I hope you like fried chicken.”
“I love chicken,” Bailey assured her. “But I didn’t expect you to serve me lunch. I thought . . .” She glanced at the store.“Perhaps the grocery has sandwiches.”
“Nonsense. Can’t have it said my guests go hungry. Mary Wright opened a bed-and-breakfast two years back, but she never did get any guests. Mary can’t cook worth a darn. Not that I get many myself. Just you and Daniel this month, and you can’t count Daniel as a regular paying guest.” Emma chuckled heartily as she led the way down the unpaved street, past a young man painting a boat and a fenced pasture where a boy and a black-and-white dog herded a ﬂock of sheep toward a red barn that seemed like the backdrop in a Norman Rockwell illustration.
“Daniel’s doing some carpentry work for me in trade for his lodging until he gets his cabin ﬁnished,” Emma continued. “He’s got property out on the point, his mama’s family’s old farm. Daniel’s a Catlin, but his mother was born a Tilghman. The old Tilghman home-place burned years back. Hit by lightning. All gone but the original summer kitchen. That was brick. It would have gone too, but the rain put the ﬁre out before it got that far.”
Bailey switched her overnight bag to her other shoulder and hurried to keep up with Emma’s determined stride.
“Daniel cleared the site and built over the old half cellar, adding three new rooms and a porch to the old kitchen,” Emma said. “Pretty as you ever seen. Daniel’s a real craftsman.” She stopped to wait for Bailey to catch up. “Pay no attention to these nasty boots. I was tending crabs in my shedding house. I sell soft-shells on the side. Anyway, the time got away from me, like it does, and I just headed down to Doris’s for bread crumbs. I wanted to make crab cakes for supper. You like crab cakes?”
Bailey nodded. “I like almost anything but sushi. I prefer my seafood cooked.”
“So do I, girl. So do I. I hear sushi’s all the fashion in Baltimore.”
The way Emma said it, it sounded like Balt-mer, and it was all Bailey could do to suppress a giggle.
“Not on Tawes. Course, most islanders love raw oysters and clams, but with all the pollution in the bay, they’re not safe to eat anymore. Why take the chance, Isay.”
Emma stopped for breath. “That’s it.” She pointed to a white two-story house with blue shutters and a wraparound porch. A painted sign on a lamppost read simply, MISS EMMA’S B AND B. “I thought ‘B and B’ sounded better than ‘boardinghouse,’ more welcoming, but nobody’s ever called it anything but Emma’s Boardinghouse, so . . .”
“I’m surprised that there isn’t more commercial development,” Bailey said. “You’re so close to the metropolitan areas.”
“Oh, people get offers. But money isn’t everything. Folks that do sell generally sell to other islanders. We like things the way they are.” Emma motioned to the wide front door with the etched-glass panes and the pretty grapevine wreath. “Go right on in. Make yourself at home. I’m going around to the back door and get rid of these muddy boots before I track up my clean ﬂoors.”
“Thank you,” Bailey managed before Emma chattered on.
“If you want to freshen up before you sit down to the table, there’s a private bath off your room. Upstairs. The Robin’s Nest. I like to name all my rooms. Can’t miss it. Down the hall. Last room on the right.”
Emma was still talking when Bailey pushed open the front door and stepped into the foyer. The interior of the house was cool, bright, and spotless, with gleaming antique furniture, starched white curtains, and a faint scent of cinnamon and nutmeg. She stood still and listened, soaking in the peaceful atmosphere. For a moment there was no sound but the faint tick of a mantel clock.
“Ouch! Son of a . . .” A male voice broke the silence. “Damn it to hell!”
Bailey looked into the living room. Beyond, in the connecting archway, a lean ﬁgure stood on the fourth step of a ladder.
“Don’t laugh,” he said. “It hurts.” He shook one hand in the air. “Fetch me that bag of ﬁnishing nails, will you? On the ﬂoor there, beside the drill.”The voice was deep, clear, and slightly tinged with the island ﬂavor.
Amused, Bailey set down her overnight case and crossed the living room. She couldn’t tell whether the carpenter was young or old, but from the way his long legs ﬁlled the worn blue jeans and his shoulders stretched against the green plaid shirt, she assumed he hadn’t reached his dotage. The workman’s hair, clean, and dark brown with a slight curl, was snugged back into a short ponytail and secured with a rough leather tie.
“Do you mind passing me the nails?” he asked impatiently.“Before I bleed to death?”
“Not at all.” Bailey picked up the small paper bag of nails and handed them to him.
“I just have the . . .” He glanced down. Dark brows, straight nose, nice chin, in the tanned face of an outdoorsman. For a split second, surprise registered in his dark eyes, and then white, even teeth ﬂashed, the charm in that boyish grin making his face intriguing. “Ouch again. You must be Miss Emma’s guest, the one with the name like the drink.” He took the nails, removed three, and handed the bag back before tucking two between his lips.
Turning back to his project, he hammered two nails expertly into the section of trim, and then descended the ladder. Blood stained his left index ﬁnger and the palm and wrist of his left hand. “Pardon me, Ms. Bailey,” he said, cupping the offending digit. “But if I drip blood on Miss Emma’s Aubusson carpet, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Daniel Catlin!” Emma appeared at the far end of the dining room. “What kind of talk is that? I’ll thank you to keep a decent tongue in your head in front of my guests.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Daniel glanced back at Bailey. “I think I’ve been put in my place. Excuse me.”
She chuckled. “It’s all right. I hear worse in my classroom every day.”
“Is that blood?” Emma demanded. She snatched off her apron and wrapped it around Daniel’s hand. “How did you do that? Never mind. Come into the kitchen. It needs peroxide and a Band-Aid. Let me see. Stop your fussing. You’d think you’d cut the thing off.” She looked at Bailey. “Please come and have your dinner. This won’t take a minute.”
“I’d like to take my bag upstairs ﬁrst,” Bailey said. “And I really should call my…my friend—to let him know I’ve arrived safely. I promised him I would.”
“Have you got a cell?” Emma asked. “You do? Well, good luck, girl. Our reception on Tawes is terrible. No towers nearby.”
“Oh,” Bailey said. “Is there a house phone I could—”
“Sorry. That’s out too. Happens all the time.”
Promptly at three, Bailey stood on Forest McCready’s front porch and rang the bell for the third time. There was no answer, no sound from within, and no sign that anyone was in the house. Frustrated, she pulled the attorney’s latest letter from her purse and read it for the fourth time today. She wasn’t mistaken about the time or the date. What could be wrong?
What could go right? As Emma had predicted, she hadn’t been able to get a signal on her cell. Not at the B and B, not on the street, and not here at the lawyer’s ofﬁce. The same message kept popping up: NO SIGNAL. She’d had a few minutes to spare, so she’d stopped at Dori’s Market and asked to use a pay phone.
“Sorry, can’t help you, miss,” the clerk had said. “Phone’s out. Haven’t had a dial tone since last night.”
Despite Emma’s warning, Bailey was surprised that her cell wouldn’t work. She’d never had problems with the service before, not even when she was on vacation at a friend’s in Nags Head last summer. With a sigh, she tucked the phone back into her bag and tried the doorbell again.
“You looking for the squire, lady?”
Bailey turned to see the burly teenager who been cutting the grass earlier standing at the foot of the porch steps, a large pair of hedge clippers in his hand.“I have an appointment with Attorney Forest McCready.”
“Squire McCready’s not to home.” The boy gestured toward the bay.“He’s likely in Annapolis today. Or Baltmer.”
“But I had a three o’clock—”
“You must be wrong about the day. He’s not here. Miss Maude cooks for him, and she went to Crisﬁeld on the mailboat this morning. If Miss Maude’s not here, the squire ain’t either.”