Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
“Do you guys mind coming back to the dock to check things out with me?” I asked. “We can talk there.”
“Actually, there’s been a little change of plan,” Diggs said. “I got a boat for you like you asked, but we took her out to the island and set the mooring already. Noel said we can take you out there together—make sure you get set up all right.”
This had clearly been Diggs’ idea, since Hammond looked like he’d rather hog-tie a rattlesnake than spend the afternoon hauling my ass around the harbor.
“That would be great,” I said.
“Great,” Hammond repeated, with a notable lack of enthusiasm. He was out the door before I could respond.
Five minutes later, Diggs and I were headed out when a grizzled fisherman in coveralls and an orange hunting cap stopped us in the hallway. I fought the urge to run in the other direction the moment I realized who it was.
“You got that paperwork I asked you for, Diggs?” he asked. He didn’t give me so much as a sidelong glance.
“I was just on my way out, Joe—can I drop it off later?”
The man shook his head; he didn’t look pleased. Joe Ashmont was the fire chief in Littlehope—or at least he had been, up until the Payson fire. A week after the church burned to the ground, Ashmont turned in his resignation. Though the reasons for that were never quite clear, he always seemed to hold my family personally responsible.
“I’ve gotta get that boat fixed or I’m screwed—the season’s about to start, I can’t have her leaking oil all over the bay. You said you’d help me,” Ashmont pressed.
Diggs glanced at me in apology. “Yeah, all right. Just hang on a second and I’ll grab it. You wanna wait in the office, Sol?”
I started to nod, but Ashmont interrupted. “She can wait here with me. I don’t bite.”
Ashmont was probably in his sixties, though he easily could have passed for seventy-five. Still, he was lean and mean and, despite his claim to the contrary, I suspected that biting was the very least I had to worry about from him. Since he’d had a front-row seat at the Payson fire, however, I knew I’d need to break the ice sooner or later if I wanted any information from him. I sent Diggs on his way.
Einstein growled low in his throat, and stood with his little body blocking my legs—just in case I did something crazy and took a step toward the psychopath in the hallway. He didn’t need to worry, though. I planned on staying put.
“It’s good I run into you,” Ashmont said the moment Diggs was out of sight. The way he said it gave me the uneasy feeling our meeting didn’t have anything to do with luck.
“Payson Isle belongs to you now, don’t it? Word is Old Mal left it to you.”
‘Old Mal’ was Malcolm Payson—brother of Isaac Payson, the preacher who had led the Payson Church until their untimely demise. Ashmont took a step toward me. I smelled whiskey and stale cigarettes on his breath.
“I guess it does.”
“ ‘I guess it does,’” he repeated, his voice up a tone to mimic me. “It does or it don’t, right? I got fishing rights off that back cove—been pulling traps there for the past twenty years. Your old man didn’t bother me, said I was welcome to it. Once he strung himself up, nobody said a word about it since.”
My chest tightened at his words and tone, anger making me braver than I probably should have been. “I’ll look into it,” I said.
A slow smile touched his lips. “You do that,” he said softly. “You got your daddy’s red hair, but you look just like your mum—you know that?” His eyes slid up and down my body, lingering on my chest. “You’re littler than her—not much to you, is there?” I’m five-five in heels, but at the moment I felt about three feet shorter. “You got that fire in your eyes, though. A lot of secrets locked up tight in that busy head.”
He took another step toward me, then leaned in more quickly than I would have thought possible. Einstein leapt for him, but he cuffed the dog in the side of the head with a swift, meaty-looking fist. Stein yelped and a split-second later Ashmont’s hand was wrapped around my upper arm, his mouth at my ear.
“Somebody might crack that pretty skull and let all those secrets spill out, you don’t watch yourself. Go home,
Solomon. You got no business here.”
Einstein was headed in for another go and Diggs was rounding the corner when Ashmont released me, turning on his heel.
“Mind that dog,” he said, calling back over his shoulder as he reached the door. “A dog like that bites me, nobody’d say boo if I shot him where he stood.”
I stared after him, too stunned to respond. As soon as Ashmont was gone, I knelt to check on my dog.
“What the hell was that?” Diggs asked as he hurried to my side. Einstein was fine, just a little shaken up; I hadn’t fared so well.
“Did you see that? He hit my damn dog. Who does that? What the hell is wrong with people?”
“What’d you say to him?”
Like it was my fault. I turned on him. Diggs held up his hands before I could light into him.
“Not that that justifies anything. It’s just—you know Ashmont.”
That was true—I did know Ashmont. And it wasn’t like I was actually
at his behavior, given the number of drunken brawls he’d started and hateful epithets he’d spewed in my family’s direction when I was a teen. That didn’t make it any more acceptable, however. I took a manila envelope from Diggs’ hands.
“This is his?”
Diggs nodded. He didn’t say anything when I tore the envelope open, and he did a fine job of keeping his amusement to himself while I skimmed the pile of paperwork inside.
“His boat broke down,” he said. “There are a couple of places that offer financial assistance to lobstermen, but he was having a hard time with the paperwork. I told him I’d give him a hand.”
Since I couldn’t think of a fitting insult for this fairly innocuous revelation, I settled for a pointed glare as I returned the documents to the envelope and handed them back to Diggs.
“Newspaper man by day, guardian angel by night. What would Littlehope do without you?”
“I’m sure they’d muddle through.”
A horn honked in the parking lot.
“That’ll be Noel,” Diggs said. “Not here half an hour and you’ve already got two men who’d just as soon watch you drown than toss you a line. Could be a new record.”
“Give me time—I’m sure I can do better.”
From the look on Diggs’ face, that was exactly what he was afraid of.
Diggs and I followed Hammond to the town landing in my car, navigating roads virtually unchanged since I’d been there last. We passed rundown houses in need of paint; stacks of lobster traps and brightly painted buoys in muddy yards; a full parking lot of pickups at the general store, gun racks mounted in the back windows and right wing propaganda on the bumper stickers.
It was still raining when I inched my Jetta down the steep grade to the landing. I parked, then leaned back in my seat at sight of a harbor filled with fishing boats bobbing on choppy black water. Diggs was watching me from the passenger’s seat. I was transported back to afternoons at the newspaper with him, in the days when missing a deadline or misquoting the locals were my biggest worries.
“So, what happened to doing this next month, once spring has a firmer hold on things?”
And I had more time to recover is what he meant.
“I’m fine, Diggs.” I shrugged. “The divorce has been final for a while now—it’s time to move on with my life.”
“I don’t know that a month qualifies as ‘a while,’ technically. I think the boys at Wikipedia say it has to be at least two—maybe longer. And the baby…”
It was the last thing I wanted to talk about. The look on my face must have said as much, because Diggs fell silent.
“I told you, I’m fine. Now, let’s get out there before Noel takes off without us.”
“Yeah… Because that’d be a tragedy.”
I got out of the car before Diggs could stall any longer. He held out for maybe sixty seconds, silent and stubborn in the passenger’s seat, before he joined me.
Between the rain and the grey day, it was impossible to make out the shape of even those islands closest to shore. Payson Isle, just over ten miles north-northeast of us, was nowhere to be seen. Hammond got out of a rabid-looking Dodge Ram loaded down with lobster traps, its grill smashed on the left side, and Diggs and I followed him down the slick boards of the town wharf. He stopped at a behemoth fishing boat with
stenciled on the side in red letters, the body painted bright blue.
For the first time since leaving Boston, I felt something other than the staunch resolve that had kept me going night and day for the past several months. Hammond wasn’t a friend, and he wouldn’t be anxious to spill the secrets I knew he’d been keeping since the Payson fire. Somehow, I’d always pictured this interrogation happening somewhere more secure than on his boat riding stormy seas.
By the time I’d harnessed Einstein into his doggie life preserver—ignoring Diggs’ mockery and Hammond’s rolled eyes—and we’d loaded ourselves and our gear aboard, the storm had all but subsided. I pushed aside my growing unease. We motored out of the harbor with Hammond at the helm, his feet firm on deck and shoulder-width apart, riding the swells. He lit a cigarette and I breathed in the smoke, the smell diluted by the sweetness of the sea and the inescapable scent of bait soaked into the floorboards. I imitated his stance, standing in the doorway of the pilothouse with Diggs behind me.
“Are you really okay?” Diggs asked.
I leaned back and let him take my weight, just for a second or two. “Fine,” I said. “It’ll be good to get on with it.”
I doubted he believed me—I certainly didn’t buy it. I was on my way to an island on which few had set foot since my father’s body had been discovered hanging from a beam in the old Payson greenhouse, ten years after the fire that had taken everyone else in the Payson congregation. My six-year marriage was over, my body still recuperating from a loss that I had, as yet, refused to acknowledge. And as soon as I could talk to Hammond without the roar of a diesel engine to drown us out, I knew things would only get more complicated.
So, was I okay?
Somehow, that didn’t matter anymore. I was here. And, one way or another, I wouldn’t leave Littlehope again until I knew the truth about Payson Isle.
It took just over an hour to reach the island. Hammond’s boat was too big to dock at the precarious-looking wharf, so he pulled alongside the mooring Diggs had set earlier and dropped anchor. A cute little speedboat was waiting for us in the water below, dwarfed by Hammond’s thirty-eight-foot Cadillac of a lobster boat, but I wasn’t interested in leaving yet. The engine hummed lower, idling in the waves. Fog hung over everything, the only sign of life a couple of lobster boats in the distance. Einstein sat on my foot. Hammond looked at Diggs, then at the horizon. After he’d avoided me for a solid minute or two, I cleared my throat.
“You’re not coming with us to the island, I take it?” I said.
He shook his head. “I’m on my way out of town—need to get packed.”
“For a couple weeks. I’ve got some things to take care of back home.”
Silence fell between us, thick with questions Hammond had yet to answer. Diggs watched our exchange curiously but said nothing.
Finally, Hammond relented. “Maybe we can get together when I get back.”
“Or maybe we can do this now,” I said.
“Okay, I might not be the most intuitive man on the planet, but I’m sensing some tension,” Diggs interrupted. “You mind giving me a little background here?”
Hammond cocked an eyebrow at me. I shrugged. Diggs was bound to find out sooner or later, anyway.
“You remember the stuff I told you about why I’m here?” I asked.
“To retrace the final weeks before the Payson suicide and write a book about your findings.”
I considered that for a moment. It was definitely part of the story—just a fairly small part at this point. “Yeah, well…” I said. “I may have left a few things out.”
Once I’d gotten him up to speed, Diggs stared at me in confusion. I could hardly blame the guy—I’d been equally confused when I saw the photos Noel Hammond had taken at the Payson crime scene twenty-two years ago.
“So, Malcolm Payson leaves the island to you out of nowhere,” Diggs began.
I braced myself for the recap.
“And in with the junk Payson’s lawyer sends to you, you find an envelope with crime scene photos from the fire.”
“Crime scene photos nobody had ever seen before,” I said. “I’ve seen all the original files—they’re not with them.”
“And the name written on the back of a couple of these photos is Noel Hammond,” Diggs kept on. He looked at Hammond. “How do a police detective’s shots of a crime scene just disappear?”
“I guess that’s the question, isn’t it?” I said, shooting my own pointed glare at our noble captain.
“I told you,” Hammond said, his back up. “I wasn’t working the case—I was just on vacation. I used to volunteer with the fire department in town whenever I was up. I responded when the call came in. It was just professional habit to take shots of the scene—they didn’t have anything to do with the investigation.”
Hammond bent down and picked up a clam shell from the deck, absently rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger before he whipped it into the ocean with a flick of his wrist.
“I left a week later,” he continued. “My wife and I went back to Bridgeport, and I didn’t really follow the case after that.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “You never thought to check into it, considering the things you found at the site and the implications you must have known they had? They closed the books on the case after less than a month, saying it was coerced suicide with Isaac Payson to blame. Your photos would have proven them wrong.”
Diggs intervened. “Take it easy, Sol. What exactly was in those photos that was so damning?”
I waited for Hammond to respond. When he didn’t, I knelt and pulled a file folder from my backpack. Diggs studied the eight by tens I handed him.
“What is that?” he asked, when he came to the second photo.