Authors: Mariah Stewart
“Sounds as if you’re well acquainted.”
“My mother was part of the group that petitioned the state to set up the sanctuary. It was her favorite place. She spent a lot of her spare time here, training guides, walking the wetlands to look for injured birds, tracking rare birds and photographing them. She even worked in the gift shop when they got shorthanded, though she much preferred being outside.”
“She sounds like quite the nature girl.”
“Yes, she was.”
“She died when I was six.”
“So was I. Anything else you want to see?”
Rick looked around, his glance returning to the bird sanctuary.
“I think I’d like to drive that loop on the way back, if you can spare a few more minutes.”
Cass got into the car and started it up, waiting while Rick fastened his seat belt before making a U-turn in the middle of the road. She drove the half mile, then took a right on the rutted dirt road.
“It would be nice if the county or the state could get around to paving this one of these days,” she said as she stopped in front of the long wooden gate that stretched across the roadway.
“Is it locked?” Rick asked.
“No, I’m sure it’s just closed. Lots of people come out here. You can see by the tire marks there’s been a lot of activity over the past few days since the rain.”
Rick got out of the car and walked to the gate. He lifted it and moved it to one side. Cass pulled the car up and he got back in.
They drove in silence for a few minutes, the road winding slowly, dividing the preserved area in two, the salt flats on one side and the more solid ground of the marsh on the other.
“There’s one of the blinds.” She pointed to a wooden structure that sat surrounded by tall rushes and cattails. “That one looks out over the marsh, so if it’s marsh birds you’re interested in, you might spend some time there.”
She pointed out several more blinds along the way.
“This one was named for my mother,” she told him when she stopped at the top of the loop. “It looks out into the bay. One time during the migrations in the spring—when the birds fly from South America to the Arctic?—she brought me with her to watch the birds gobble up the horseshoe crab eggs on the beach down there. It’s not as dramatic as it is on the Delaware Bay, but it was certainly something to see. At least for a six-year-old. All those birds swooping around, calling and scolding . . .”
She sat for a silent moment, then drove on, but not before he saw the sign on the side of the road.
Dedicated to the memory of Jenny Burke, whose tireless work helped turn a swamp into a sanctuary.
“Seen enough?” she asked.
He nodded. “I think so.”
She accelerated, heading for the exit, then paused to wave on an incoming car, then drove out through the gate.
The driver of the other car slowed to a stop as Cass passed, watching in his rearview mirror from behind dark glasses as she negotiated the bumpy dirt road.
She had no way of knowing he would sit and stare after her until her car had long since disappeared.
“Hey, I thought you weren’t going to work all day.”
Lucy, who was sitting on the top step of the front porch, painting her toenails a deep red, called to Cass even before she had the car door closed behind her.
“I got tied up.”
“I hope he was cute.” Lucy raised one foot and wiggled her toes. “What do you think? Is it too dark? Would it look better if I were tanner?”
“It looks fine,” Cass said without looking. The color of her cousin’s toenails was the last thing on her mind.
“So, was he?”
“Was who what?”
“Was he cute?” Lucy grinned. “You were meeting with that FBI guy this morning, right?”
Cass paused on her way up the stairs.
“Actually, he was, I guess.”
“You guess?” Lucy laughed out loud.
“Yeah, I guess he was okay.”
“What did he look like? Tall, dark, and handsome?”
“That fits.” Cass stepped around Lucy and went into the house.
“Hey, come back here!” Lucy got up awkwardly and followed Cass inside, walking on her heels to avoid smearing the polish. “You can do better than that. And what’s his name? Was he nice?”
“Lucy, this wasn’t a blind date. He’s with the FBI. He’s only here to help us out with these killings.”
Lucy pulled two chairs out from under the kitchen table, sat in one, and propped her feet up on the other.
“But you must have had an impression of him. You spent all day in his company.”
“Okay, my impression is that he’s very smart, very professional. He wasn’t what I expected at all.” Cass rummaged in the refrigerator, which was filled to near-capacity, thanks to Lucy’s trip to the local market. She brought out a block of cheddar cheese and set it on the counter while she looked for a knife.
“I bought a cheese slicer,” Lucy told her. “It’s in the drawer with the flatware.”
“This?” Cass held up the slicer and Lucy nodded.
“There are crackers in the cupboard next to the cereal, but don’t eat too much. I bought crabs for dinner.” Lucy shook the bottle of nail polish, then opened it and began to paint the fingernails on her left hand to match her toes. “It was for myself because I didn’t hear from the kids this morning. They’re supposed to call on Saturdays, right? I figured they probably called home and talked to their dad and he probably didn’t remind them to call me on my cell phone, so I went food shopping and stopped at the Crab Shack, thinking we could pig out later. Well, there I was, in line, waiting for our crabs to be cooked to order, and doesn’t my cell phone ring?”
Lucy paused to beam.
“And there were my babies, both of them. They did call home, and they had forgotten my number, so David gave it to them and told them to charge the call to the house phone—I should thank him, I guess—so I got to talk to both of the boys. I almost cried, I was so happy to hear from them.”
“How are they doing?”
“Having the time of their lives, and no injuries so far.” She knocked on the wooden cabinet. “They want to stay for an extra session. You’d think two weeks of football, two weeks of lacrosse would be enough, but nooooo. They want two weeks of ice hockey as well.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them to take it up with their father. I guess I’d rather have them at camp having fun than home dodging bullets between David and me.” Lucy looked as if she was about to cry. “The longer they stay at camp, the longer I can put distance between me and David. The longer I have to think about what I want to do, where I want to go . . .”
She stared out the window for a time.
“Anyway, it was so good to hear their voices. I miss them every day. They’ve never been away from me for more than a long weekend.”
“They’re eleven this year?”
“I guess that’s old enough.”
“Old enough for what?”
“Old enough to go a few weeks without seeing their momma.”
“Oh, you.” Lucy laughed. “I’ll see them next weekend. I can’t wait. I know it’s not even been a week, but I miss them. Parents can go for visits after the second week, so I’ll drive up on Saturday for a while. You’re welcome to come with me if you like.”
“We’ll see. As much as I’d like to see Kyle and Kevin again, I hate to commit to anything. With the investigation and all.”
“I understand.” Lucy bit the inside of her lip. “I guess I need to find out when David is going to be there. So I can go at a different time.”
“The boys won’t think that’s odd? That you don’t go together?”
“I’ll just tell them that I’ve come up from the beach, which would be the absolute truth.” She waved a hand at Cass. “Now, go on. You were talking about how . . . what’s his name? The FBI guy?”
“Cisco? Like the Cisco Kid?”
“I can’t imagine anyone calling him that and living to tell about it,” Cass mused, “but yes, like the Cisco Kid.”
“So you were telling me how he wasn’t what you’d expected.”
“I’ve never worked directly with the FBI before, but from everything I’ve heard, they’re a pain in the ass to deal with. Like, once they come into an investigation, they take over. They like to be in charge. Their way or the highway. And that once the case has been solved, they take the credit. If the case goes bad, they put the blame on the locals.”
“You think that’s the way this guy, Cisco, is going to do it?”
“Well, we’ll see. He says we’ll be working together, equally. He’s not going to take over the case, he’s not going to claim credit once we catch this guy, yada yada yada. The jury’s still out on him.” She paused to reflect. “And he was adamant that we would catch this guy.”
“Well, that’s a good thing, right? You want to work with someone who has that kind of confidence, right?”
“I want so badly to catch this bastard. And soon. It’s been over a week.” She shook her head. “Every day he’s out there, some other poor woman is at risk.”
“You think the Cisco Kid can make a difference?”
“He’s another pair of experienced hands. That alone makes a difference.” Cass cut off a paper-thin slice of cheese. “Want one?”
“No, thanks. Not right now.” Lucy bent close to the table as she applied polish to a fingernail. “So what did you do with him today?”
“Gave him a copy of each of the victims’ files. Took him to all four crime scenes.” Cass went back to the fridge for a beer. “Last one. Want half?”
“Actually, I’d love half. Thanks.”
Cass got two glasses out of the cupboard and split the beer equally between them. She set one on the table in front of Lucy, who was still absorbed in polishing her nails, and took a thoughtful sip from the other.
“He wanted to go through the bird sanctuary,” she said.
“He just wanted to see what was there, behind the fence, since our last victim was found right outside there, on Bay Lane.”
“I haven’t been out there in . . .” Lucy tried to remember. “I don’t even know how long it’s been since I was there. Maybe not since I was a kid.”
“I hadn’t gone in years.”
“Remember when your mom used to take us there?”
“Yes.” Cass took another sip, then said softly, “They put a memorial up, near one of the blinds. A plaque with her name on it.”
“That’s really nice, Cass.” Lucy put the brush into the polish bottle. “Hadn’t you seen it before?”
Cass shook her head. “I sort of remember someone sending me a letter some years ago, that they were going to dedicate something, but I think I was still in college at the time and missed it completely.”
“I’d like to see it. Can we go?”
“I’d be happy to take you tomorrow,” Cass told her, “but right now, I’m so tired, I just want to sleep. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Nope. Not at all.”
“No parties you can’t miss tonight?”
“Actually, someone at the clambake did mention something about a party tonight, but since you were such a sport, going out with me last night when you were so beat, I wasn’t even going to mention it.”
“You could go alone, you know. You really don’t need me to tag along.”
“I’m just not ready to go places alone.” Lucy held up one hand against the argument she knew would be forthcoming. “Don’t say it. I know how old I am. I know all that. It’s just that, after so many years of being married, I’m not used to going places alone, not social places, anyway. I know that must sound silly to you, but you’ve always been so independent, Cass, you’ve never needed to lean on anyone. If I ever had any real confidence in myself, I must have lost it somewhere along the way. I guess I need to work myself into my new life gradually.” She tightened the lid on the polish and set it aside, then picked up her glass and drank from it. “Besides, I don’t mind hanging out with you. I like your company.”
“Why don’t you take a nap, and I’ll run out and pick up a DVD or two, and we can do beer and popcorn and movies tonight?”
“Beer and pretzels?” Cass asked.
“That would be great. Thanks.” Cass rose and started toward the steps. “And there’s nothing I want more right now than a nap. I can barely keep my eyes open.”
“Do it. I’ll go now. Can you think of anything else you might want?”
“Right now I can’t think, period. But thanks.” Cass was almost to the top step. “Nothing that a little sleep won’t cure . . .”
He was in the video store, playing nice uncle to his nephews, when she walked through the door. Even the air around him seemed to change, seemed to charge with something vital and alive.
She was beautiful. Her body, her face. Her long dark hair.
“Can we get this one? Can we?” His five-year-old nephew tugged at his sleeve.
“Sure.” He nodded without taking his eyes from her. “Get whatever you want.”
“Can I get a big box of Raisinets?”
“Can I get one, too?” The older of the two boys asked.
“Sure. Whatever you want. Go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
He watched her move through the stacks of movies, and without thinking, followed as if drawn to her by an invisible force.
This one. This one. This one . . .
The closer he got, the more perfect she appeared to be.
He walked toward her, then behind her. She glanced up when he brushed against her.
“Sorry,” he said. “These narrow aisles . . .”
She smiled and stepped aside to allow him to pass. He looked at the movie in her hands.
“That’s a fun one,” he said, smiling in his warmest, most casual manner. “My nephews liked it a lot.”
“Whoopi Goldberg and some singing nuns.” She smiled back. “What’s not to like?”
“Hey, we’re ready to go now.”
One of the little bastards was at his elbow.
The other appeared right behind him. “Can we go home now?”
“Sure, boys.” He tried to beam affectionately at them, wasn’t sure he’d gotten it right, but she didn’t seem to notice. She’d already moved on. “Sure . . .”
They dragged him to the candy counter, and he barely paid attention to what he was paying for. Not that he cared. He wanted to wait around to see where she’d be going from here, but he couldn’t seem to drag things out long enough. The boys were already on their way out the door, and he should be right behind them. What if they were kidnapped? How would he explain that to his brother and stupid sister-in-law?
Though if the boys were his kids, he might consider kidnapping a favor. Boring little brats. Demanding. Annoying.
He followed them into the parking lot, then drove home the long way. Which eventually took him down Brighton.
He slowed when he passed the house where he knew she was staying. There was one car in the drive, the car she’d driven last night. He was wondering how she’d managed to get here so quickly, when another car drove past him. It, too, slowed as it approached the bungalow. He eased up on the gas and watched in the side mirror as she got out of the car.
“Hey, there’s a car coming!” his nephew yelled from the backseat.
He swerved to avoid it.
“Didn’t you see it?”
“Sure I saw it. I had plenty of time.” His eyes kept darting to the mirror. She was out of the car now, striding up the sidewalk on long bare legs. He pulled to the side of the road, permitting a convenient few cars to pass him on the narrow street.
“That’s what Daddy does. He pulls over and lets people pass. He says it’s polite,” the seven-year-old said.
“Now you’re being polite, too. You weren’t polite before,” the five-year-old reprimanded him.
He watched through the mirror until she was inside the house.
This one. This one. This one.
Yes. This one.
It was merely a matter of how and when.
would take a little figuring. She was living with a cop—he knew who
was, but he wasn’t going to deal with her now, wasn’t even going to think about her now. There was no room in his head for thoughts of her. Not when he had the one—truly the one—in sight. The other, no longer important, could wait.
it couldn’t be soon enough.
Never soon enough.