Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
I looked over his shoulder, though I knew exactly which one had prompted the question. All the photos were black and white, the light good and the images sharp. Hammond had taken more than his share of crime scene photos, if these were any indication. The one Diggs held was of a charred wooden door.
“Is that a…?”
“Padlock,” I confirmed. “A
padlock. On the outside of the door. Which means Payson’s congregation couldn’t exactly opt out of their little pact, since they probably didn’t lock themselves in from the outside.”
Suddenly, Hammond became inordinately interested in the landscape. He took a pack of Pall Malls from his pocket, then patted down his Carhartts until he found a lighter. Diggs continued studying the photos, but my attention had shifted back to Hammond. He offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. I waited.
Teeth clenched around his cigarette, he inhaled deeply, then spoke with the exhale. “So, what exactly do you want from me? You’ve got the pictures—you know as much as I do.”
“I want to know how nobody ever heard about the padlock,” I said.
“I didn’t know they hadn’t—as far as I knew, they had all the information I did. Wouldn’t have been my place to fill them in on their own investigation.”
Diggs looked up at that. His eyes slid from mine to Hammond’s, his forehead furrowed. “You were a cop—isn’t that what cops do? I don’t care if it’s not your case. This was a key piece of evidence that somehow got missed.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Hammond said. The hostility he’d barely subverted up to this point hardened his voice now. “I told you on that first phone call—this is ancient history. It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with you.”
“Doesn’t have anything to do with me?” I took a step toward him. “Are you nuts? You think this is just idle curiosity on my part?” The frustration that had been building for the past three months felt like a corkscrew tightening in my chest. I advanced on Hammond until he was forced to take a step back. “The past twenty years, everything I’ve done, every move I’ve made—”
I stopped. Hammond stared at me with something dangerously close to pity, while Diggs held me back with a hand on my arm.
“Thirty-four people died in a locked chapel that day,” I said. It took some effort to keep my voice even. “A tox screen was tough because there wasn’t much fluid in the bodies to test, but they found traces of Scopolamine.” Diggs raised an eyebrow in question. “From henbane.” I hesitated. “My father grew it on the island—anyone would have had access.”
“One person in particular comes to mind,” Hammond said under his breath.
Our eyes met. I tried to read what he knew, thinking back to that day: my father and I racing through a forest of smoke, the church in flames, a pile of burned bodies and debris… And the cloaked man I’d only told my parents about, repeating the story until my mother insisted I stop, convincing me that he’d been a figment of my imagination; just more fallout from the Payson fire.
“You have a theory you want to share?” I pressed.
I thought for a moment that Hammond would tell me whatever it was he was holding back, but a second later he broke our stalemate and glanced at his watch.
“I need to get back.”
When you’re interviewing somebody for a story, there inevitably comes a point when you hit a wall. No matter how much you plead, how often you rephrase the question or bribe or cajole, the interview is over; your source has dried up. After fifteen years as a reporter, I’d learned to recognize the look in someone’s eyes when they hit that wall. That was the look Hammond was giving me. Short of handcuffs and water boarding, there wasn’t a thing I could do to get him to stay put and keep talking.
I pushed away everything but the cold, clean air around me. Silence reigned on deck for another few seconds before Diggs spoke up.
“All right—so, we have the story… A very
part of the story, but it’ll get us started. Now what?”
“Now, I find out what really happened,” I said. Hammond wouldn’t meet my eye. “And we start on the island.”
The boat rocked on the waves. Payson Isle was closer to me than it had been since I was a teenager, fog blurring its edges, a study in gray landscape and blue-black sea. Wind-worn evergreens and birches lined the granite shore. From where I stood, just above sea level on a boat that was not my own, the island forest looked impenetrable.
I turned my back on Diggs and Hammond and wrapped my hands around the cold steel boat railing. The water below was too dark and too deep to see anything in its depths. It made me think of sea monsters and shipwrecks and hauntings—all those things I’d left behind when I graduated high school and abandoned Littlehope. I was older now, ostensibly wiser, but it turned out those superstitions hadn’t completely released their hold on me.
Diggs and I transferred Einstein and my things to the speedboat, and Hammond pulled up anchor and piloted away. From the mooring, it took Diggs and I all of five minutes to reach Payson Isle. We tied the boat off at the neglected dock and climbed wooden steps that had been driven into the side of the island’s rocky ledges back when my father still called this place home. It was an easier climb than I remembered, and a newly liberated Einstein scrambled past us. Another few yards of rocky terrain and we reached the top, where I found myself at the foot of an overgrown path in the woods.
I stood at the top of the cliff looking down at the ocean below. It was just after one o’clock. The sun appeared as a distant white haze behind the fog. Einstein reclaimed his position at my side, while Diggs forged ahead. I had the feeling that he wasn’t satisfied with the answers he’d gotten from Hammond. More than that, though, I knew he was pissed that I hadn’t told him sooner about the pictures—about the real reason I was here. I let him go, hoping he’d burn off some of his anger before he confronted me.
The path steepened as we continued our journey. The boarding house that had served as home to the Payson congregation had been built at the highest point on the island, to take advantage of a million-dollar view of the ocean below. The old three-story barn that had doubled as the Payson church, on the other hand, was built with good old-fashioned common sense in mind. It sat in the valley below, where it had been sheltered from high winds and torrential rain for over one hundred years. Its placement, combined with heavy rain the day of the fire, was the only thing that had saved the entire island from going up like a tinderbox.
We were on a dark path, thick with sharp-needled pines and scrub brush, when Diggs slowed his pace. I could tell he was cooling off when he took the time to hold branches out of the way for me. Einstein had his nose pressed to the back of my knee, and showed no inclination to stray. I was trying to see up ahead. Trying to focus. The deeper we got into the woods, the harder the simple act of breathing in and out became.
It wasn’t until we reached the rusted, wrought-iron fence at the head of the boarding house path that what I was about to do sank in. The gate couldn’t have been six feet tall—smaller than I remembered it as a child, but still impressive enough to inspire dread. It didn’t close all the way anymore, but rather than trying to force it from the mud and partially frozen ground, Diggs and I just squeezed through the opening.
Once we were on the path to the house, Diggs actually tried to start a conversation a couple of times. I wasn’t in the mood for talking, though. I just wanted to move—to feel my legs, burn my lungs with the cold. Shut off my brain, even if it was only for a few minutes. There was a change in the air as we trudged up the steep incline—it seemed warmer, less biting somehow. I chalked it up to the physical exertion and the thick stand of pine and birch shielding us from the wind. Ignoring memories of ghost stories I’d been taunted with as a school kid (
There’s a madman on Payson Isle who talks to God and lives with ghosts…
), I finally stopped to catch my breath.
I set my pack down and paused on the trail, doubling over at the waist with my hands on my knees. Diggs turned back when he realized I was no longer behind him. The bastard wasn’t even winded.
“So, I guess you won’t be joining me in the Littlehope Iron Man this year.”
“Not unless you’re carrying me.”
“And you’re smoking.”
I met his gaze with a hard smile. “And apparently you’re not. I’m thirty-three, Diggs. That’s almost a decade older than you were when you first took me under your well-muscled wing at the
. And considering the places we’ve been and the things we’ve done, I think it’s high time you stop playing big brother.”
It was a low blow, and I knew it. Diggs has been married three times that I know of, with no shortage of long-legged honeys between nuptials. It’s his eyes—there’s no resisting them. Clear, sparking blue eyes that hint at unplumbed depths and endless fun to be had. His previous relationships always tended to be short and tumultuous, most of them part of a booze-and drug-riddled past that he left behind a few years ago, for reasons he had yet to share with me.
He’d always done his best to shelter me from his baser impulses, though. Not always successfully, but I appreciated the gesture. Over the years, there’d been a few admittedly mind-blowing lapses in judgment when one or the other of us was lost or lonely, but they always ended when the sun came up. Afterward, Diggs would invariably torture himself for crossing some line he’d drawn in the sand back when I was still a teenager—no matter how many times I assured him that I was all grown up now, and only too happy to cross that line with him. After Michael and I married, Diggs was a perfect gentleman, and we didn’t mention the indiscretions of our past lives anymore.
Now, however, Michael was out of the picture, and as far as I knew, Diggs didn’t have any long-legged honeys sharing his bed. I realized suddenly that angry strangers and a potentially murderous conspiracy weren’t all I had to worry about.
My words hit their mark. Diggs’ blue eyes flashed and his strong jaw tensed as he worked to recover his cool.
“Hammond’s pictures—those are the reason you went off the reservation three months ago?” he asked.
“I don’t want to do this now.”
“But you know we’re gonna do it sometime, right? Twenty-two years, and nobody ever hears about a fairly obvious padlock on the scene of one of the biggest tragedies in Maine history? I’m not a paranoid man, but if that doesn’t scream conspiracy, I don’t know what does.”
I pulled out one of the cigarettes Hammond had grudgingly loaned me before he left, lit it, and inhaled deeply. Diggs was watching me.
“We should get up there,” I said, avoiding his eye. “I don’t want to waste anymore daylight.” I shouldered my pack and hit the trail ahead of him. We walked on in silence.
It was rough going from there—the road leading up to the house was no more than a swath cut through the trees, buried beneath years of fallen branches, new tree growth, mud, and ice. Diggs fell behind after our exchange, giving me the space it was clear I needed. I pushed his questions to the back of my mind and focused on my surroundings.
Like most Maine islands, Payson Isle is predominantly granite, the source of the original settlers’ livelihoods as early as the 1820s. Back then, the islands of Maine were worlds unto themselves, complete with bars, bowling alleys, and dance halls. When the market for granite was displaced by cheaper, more accessible concrete, those same islands became ghost towns. Isaac Payson’s grandfather bought the eight-hundred-acre island for the grand sum of six dollars and twenty cents, back in 1928. He abandoned the granite quarry on one end of the island, kept up a couple of outbuildings for hired hands, and turned the place into a breeding farm for prize-winning quarter horses.
I was so caught up in the history of the place that I didn’t notice the trail had gotten darker, the forest quieter. Something stopped me mid-step, a whisper of remembrance curled like a ribbon of smoke around my throat.
“Were Jack’s magic beans yellow or green?”
A greenhouse that smells like soil and sunlight. My father: red hair, like mine. Quick wit, clear eyes. And me, always with the questions.
“Maybe they were both magic,” he suggests.
“They could have been black beans. Or lentils. Jesus didn’t believe in magic, you know. Only miracles,” I tell him.
“Sometimes miracles are magic. Sometimes magic is a miracle.” I roll my eyes. They are green, like my mother’s. I know this only from the pictures in our room—at six years old, I have no memories of her. At six years old, my world is still my father. The church. This island.
“You can’t have both,” I say. “You have to choose. Father Isaac says magic is a trick of the devil. Miracles are the work of God.”
He puts his arm around my shoulders and pulls me close. My hands are dirty, my jeans wet from kneeling in soil all morning. My father smells like he always smells—like hard work and damp earth and laughter and home-baked bread. My father smells like home.
“I think you are magic,” he whispers to me. It is a secret, I know. “And a miracle. Not even Isaac can change my mind on that one, baby. You’ll always be my magic bean.”
“Solomon? You okay?”
The boarding house stood just twenty yards from us, but I was focused on the overgrown path at my feet. Diggs had rejoined me somewhere along the line. I’d forgotten about my cigarette, the ash now almost as long as the remaining filter.
“What is it?” he asked.
I indicated the path. “That’s the… That’s where he died.”
I nodded. The anger was gone from Diggs’ eyes, replaced with concern.
“We could go back to my place. Come here tomorrow instead if you want.”
I tried smiling, but my lips were dry and stuck to my teeth. “Will something change between now and then?”
“Probably not,” he conceded.
“Then I guess we should do it now. If I can’t even get in the house without losing it, what are the chances I’ll be able to spend all day every day putting the pieces together out here?”