Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
Copyright © 2012 by Jen Blood
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design by Travis Pennington
Dedicated to my parents,
for their unwavering belief in the importance
of writers and the stories we tell.
Though I have been writing for many years, this is the novel that taught me how to tell a story. A multitude of people helped me in the lengthy process to bring that to light. I owe a great debt to the wonderful readers and writers in my writing groups along the way: Brady, Devon, Dom, Sara, Daniel, David, Jeff, Terri, and Paige. Special thanks to Harvey Ardman for his stellar editing and insights in the final leg of this very long journey. I cannot say enough about the generosity and talent of the mentors with whom I’ve worked at Goddard College and the Stonecoast MFA: Shelley Vermilya, Lucinda Garthwaite, Dennis Lehane, Suzanne Strempek-Shea, Roland Merullo, Mike Kimball, and the inimitable Lewis Robinson. For their patience, optimism, and support, I thank my parents, my beleaguered brother Mike—who never signed up to share his life with a writer but who, for better or worse, seems to be doing just that—and his beautiful family, Brandi, Maggie, and Maya. And, finally, I offer my profound gratitude to Sergeant Kenneth Grimes and the Maine State Fire Marshal’s office, Sergeant Don Finnegan of the Rockland Police Department, and my old chum Jim Metcalf of the Bangor Fire Department, all of whom took time out of very busy schedules to provide me with information and background so that this story might have some semblance of realism to it.
ALL THE BLUE-EYED ANGELS
An Erin Solomon Novel
August 22, 1990
On my tenth birthday, I am baptized by fire.
I race through a forest of smoke, ignoring the sting of blackberry brambles and pine branches on sensitive cheeks and bare arms. Up ahead, I catch a glimpse of my father’s shirt, drenched and muddy, as he races through the woods. I follow blindly, too terrified to scream, too panicked to stop.
A figure in black chases us, gaining on me fast. At ten years old, raised in the church, I am certain that he is Death itself. He wears a hooded cloak; I imagine him taking flight at my heels, reaching for me with gnarled fingers. I run faster, my breath high in my chest, trees speeding past. The air gets thicker and harder to breathe the closer we get to the fire, but I don’t stop.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
I can hear him behind me, three or four steps back at most, his breath coming hard and his hands getting closer.
I skid into the clearing certain that I’m safe now—I’ve reached the church. The church is always safe.
But today, nothing is safe. Flames climb the blackened walls of the chapel, firemen circling with hoses to keep the surrounding forest from burning. My father has arrived ahead of me—I find him kneeling in front of a pile of rubble just feet from the flames. His shoulders shake as he cries.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.
I go to him because I know no one else will, and wrap my arms around his neck. When I scan the tree line, the man I felt behind me just moments before is gone. Now, there is no one but the firemen, the local constable, and my mother with her doctor’s bag and no survivors to heal.
I pray in my father’s ear, whispering words of comfort the way he always has for me. There is a smell that sticks in my throat and turns my stomach, but only when my mother comes for me, trying to pull me away, do I realize what that smell is.
He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me on a path of righteousness for His name’s sake.
A coal black, claw-like hand reaches from beneath the pile of burned debris where my father weeps. A few feet beyond, I see a flash of soot-stained white feathers, china-blue eyes, and a painted smile that seems suddenly cruel. I stay there, fixated on the doll, until my mother takes me in her arms and forces me away.
She sets me on the wet grass and places a mask over my face so that I can breathe. The oxygen tastes like cold water after a long drought. I sit still while the rain washes over me and my father cries and the church burns to the ground.
I’m just beginning to calm down when I feel a presence like warm breath at the back of my neck, and I turn once more toward the trees.
The cloaked man stands at the edge of the woods, his hood down around his shoulders. Rain plasters dark hair against his head. Water drips down high cheekbones and a thin, sharp nose.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
The words of my favorite Psalm stutter in my head—
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
The man in black turns his head, his dark eyes fixing on mine.
My cup runneth over.
He puts a finger to his thin lips and whispers to me through the chaos.
More than twenty years will pass before I pray again.
I returned to my hometown of Littlehope, Maine, on a wet afternoon when the town was locked in fog. A cold rain filled the potholes and pooled on the shoulder of coastal Route 1, ensuring that I hydroplaned most of the drive up from Boston. I hadn’t set foot in Littlehope since my high school graduation, when I left the town behind in a beaten-to-hell Honda Civic with the vow that I would never return.
That was fifteen years ago.
Littlehope is a fishing village at the end of a peninsula on Penobscot Bay, about two hours from Portland. It’s known for Bennett’s Lobster Shanty, the Ladies Auxiliary Quilting League, and a small but determined band of drug runners who rule the harbor. Littlehope also happens to be ten miles as the crow flies from the island where thirty-four members of the Payson Church of Tomorrow burned to death and where, a decade later, my father hanged himself in their honor.
They say you can’t go home again. In my case, it seems more apt to ask why the hell you’d ever want to.
I walked through the front door of the
Downeast Daily Tribune
just after eleven o’clock that Wednesday morning. The
has delivered the news to three counties in the Midcoast for over fifty years, from an ugly concrete block of a building on Littlehope’s main drag. Across the road, you’ll find the Episcopal Church, the local medical clinic, and the only bar in town. My mother used to joke that the layout was intentional—locals could get plastered and beat the crap out of each other Saturday night, stumble next door to get patched up, and stop in to see the neighborhood preacher for redemption on Sunday morning.
The first job I ever had was as Girl Friday at the
, fetching coffee and making copies for the local newshounds, occasionally typing up copy when no one else was around or they were too lazy to do it themselves. Walking through the familiar halls that morning, I soaked in the smells of fresh ink and old newspapers, amazed at the things people are usually amazed at when they come home after a lifetime away: how small the building was, how outdated the décor, how it paled in comparison to my golden memories.
My comrade-in-arms, Einstein—part terrier, part Muppet, and so-named not for any propensity toward genius but rather for his unruly white curls—padded along beside me, ears and tail up, his nails clicking on the faded grey linoleum floor. Plaques and photos decorated the concrete walls, some dating back to my teenage days with the paper. I passed two closed doors before I reached the newsroom—the last door on the right, with yellowed Peanuts comics taped to the window and the sound of a BBC newscast coming from within. Einstein’s tail started wagging, his body shimmying with the motion, the second he caught scent of the company we were about to keep.
“Settle, buddy,” I said, my hand on the doorknob—though in fairness the words were probably more for me than him. The dog glanced up at me and whined.
I opened the door and had only a second to get my bearings before I was spotted; it’s hard to be stealthy when a bullet of fur precedes you into the room. Daniel Diggins—aka Diggs to almost everyone on the planet—greeted my mutt with more enthusiasm than I knew I would get, crouching low to fondle dogged ears and dodge a few canine kisses while I took stock of the old homestead.
The computers had been updated since I’d been there last, but were still out of date. The desks were the same, though—six hulking metal things with jagged edges and scratched surfaces, buried under the detritus of the newspaper biz: piles of paperwork, oversized computer monitors, and half-eaten bags of junk food. A couple of overweight, graying reporter-types were on cell phones on one side of the room, while Diggs and another man stood at a desk that had once been mine. Behind them, a wall-mounted TV was tuned to MSNBC.
Before Diggs straightened to say hello, the other half of the duo locked eyes with me. Though we’d never met face to face, it was clear from his pointed glare who he was—and that, unlike me, he had not been looking forward to this meeting.
“Are you planning on saying hello to me at all, or is this visit gonna be all about the dog?” I asked Diggs, if only to break the sudden tension in the room.
“It’s always all about the dog,” Diggs said. “You should know that by now.” He stood and enveloped me in a warm hug. I held on tight, lost in a smell of wool and comfort that would forever be associated with the best parts of my youth.
“How’re you doing, kiddo?” he asked. The words were quiet, warm in my ear—a question between just the two of us before I got started. I stepped out of his embrace with what I hoped was a businesslike nod.
“Good. I’m good.”
“Good,” he said. “And the drive was…?”
“The drive was fine, Diggs.”
He smiled—a slow grin that’s been charming women around the globe for as long as I can remember. Though I hadn’t visited Littlehope in over a decade, Diggs and I had kept in close touch over the years. Our latest visit had been a few months before, but he looked no different than he always does: curly blond hair stylishly unkempt, his five o’clock shadow edging closer to a beard than I’d seen it in some time. He was toying with me now. Diggs likes that kind of thing.
When it became clear that I wasn’t playing along, he nodded toward the other man at the desk.
“Noel,” Diggs said. “This is Erin Solomon. Erin, Noel Hammond.”
Hammond extended his hand to me like someone had a gun at his back, and we shook.
“Nice to finally meet you, Noel. Thanks for coming.”
“Diggs didn’t give me much choice.”
So, Diggs had come through again—this time by delivering a much-needed source at my feet. “Yeah, well, he knew he’d have to put up with my bitching otherwise. It won’t take long.”
“This is about your book, then?” he asked.
I glanced at Diggs, making no effort to conceal my displeasure. “You heard about that?”
“The whole town’s heard about that,” Hammond said. “It was the lead story in the paper about a month back. The book deal, you inheriting Payson Isle… Everybody knows about it.”
I raised an eyebrow at Diggs, who raised his hands in surrender. “It wasn’t my call, Solomon—there was no way I could keep it quiet. I figured you’d rather I do the write-up than somebody else.”
He was right about that, at least. Still, I wasn’t thrilled to think the entire
readership was in on my business. I squelched a sigh and told myself to get over it. I was sure it wouldn’t be the last surprise I had in this investigation.
“So, where do you want to do this?” Hammond prompted me.
He was a lesson in how deceptive a phone voice can be. In the one telephone interview he’d granted me in the past three months, Hammond had been articulate and reserved during a conversation that had been anything but pleasant. Though I’d known he was a retired cop, I had still pictured an aging professor-type—someone the local fishermen would hate, and the women in the tiny library on the corner would fantasize about. I was wrong.
Though he had to be at least sixty-five, Noel Hammond was built more like a linebacker than a man bound for the geriatric set. Over six feet tall and easily two-hundred pounds, he looked like he could bench press a buffalo without breaking a sweat. His hands were callused, his grip stronger than I’d expected.