Horace Chase’s first clue that his move to Hilton Head Island might not have been the best idea came when his neighbor pointed a gun at Chelsea. The last five years of his life had been an un-ending string of ‘not best ideas’ so he wasn’t surprised.
“This your dog?” The man snapped. He was standing on the edge of Chase’s property, dressed in golfing clothes, the kind of boring attire Chase vaguely remembered from his childhood visits to the island. The man filled out the shirt and then stretched it quite a bit, and his belt was lost somewhere in the fold of his stomach over the top of his pants.
There were three other men, similarly dressed, but in better shape, standing in a loose semi-circle around the open trunk of a large BMW which contained their golf bags and a cooler. Two of them had open beer cans in their hands—a short, squat fireplug of man and a tall, hook-nosed fellow with dark eyes who was taking in the scene carefully, as if balancing a scorecard. The one without a beer, a distinguished looking older man, was standing slightly apart from the others and appeared bemused at what was developing and entirely above it all. As they’d say in the Army, he apparently thought his shit didn’t stink.
“Put the gun away, please,” Chase said. The please was said in resignation, because Chase could read this man and knew he could say twenty Hail Mary’s and a dozen Our Father’s and it wouldn’t make any impact.
The man’s face was bright red from booze and the surprisingly warm winter day. The barrel of the large caliber revolver wavered in the humid South Carolina sun. “Don’t fucking tell me what to do. No one tells me what to do. Not on my island. I asked you if this is your fucking dog, taking a fucking dump, near my God-damn yard?”
Chase had to remind himself he was no longer in the world where he could kill somebody for talking to him like that—with gun in hand. “That is my dog,” Chase said in an even voice. It was still new to him to say that and he liked the sound. He noted the way the landscaping abruptly ended a couple of feet ahead of Chelsea. “It might be near your yard, but it’s not in your yard.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman jogging along the narrow street slow to a walk, then halt as she turned to watch the confrontation. There was a young boy on a bike next to her and they were talking. The other men noticed her also as there was an increase in tension. Women, especially attractive ones, had that effect on testosterone. Chase had a theory that a lot of wars had been started over attractive women; there was even an epic poem about one, caused by some hot number named Helen.
“Your fucking dog comes near my land again, I’ll kill it,” the man said, glaring at Chase, the thin strands of white hair trying to cover his balding head sopping with sweat.
“So I assume you’re not going to be coming over later with a welcome basket?” Chase whistled at the dog. “Chelsea. Come.”
The short-haired German Shepherd-Chow mix looked up from the bush she had been sniffing, blinked, then lazily shuffled over to stand by Chase. She was big, broad-chested, with deep dark, sad eyes. And a loopy grin, surrounded by a tint of gray muzzle, which belied her overall fierce, wolfish appearance. Old soul, Chase had decided after driving away from Boulder, Colorado with her in the passenger seat of his Jeep. She hadn’t been his idea, but rather a gift from his former landlord, and the only good thing he was taking from the mountain town.
“Who the fuck are you?” The man asked, the gun still in his hand, although it was now pointing at the ground, the weight too much for the man to maintain.
“I’ve made it a policy not to answer questions from people with guns in their hand,” Chase said as he turned to head back toward the house. Even as he said it he realized that wasn’t true—he’d spent the majority of his life in the company of people with guns in their hands and sometimes they’d asked questions. It was the pointed at him part that he objected to, but he figured it was too late to correct the statement.
The woman was still watching. Tall. Slender. Short blonde hair. Her skin-tight workout top was tinged with sweat. Her breasts were pert and a bit more than a handful and Chase realized he was evaluating her body based on his experience with his ex-girlfriend, Sylvie, and her cohorts in the strip club she’d worked at in Boulder. That now defunct relationship had been part of the long ‘not best idea’ list. Not the start of it, though. Sylvie had been one of the best things ever to enter his life, but the fact he unraveled it so quickly added it to the list. The kid was saying something to the woman and she laughed and reached out and tousled his blonde hair.
“Hey, asshole,” the man shouted toward Chase. “What are you doing on that property?”
Chase slowly turned. The man still had the gun in hand.
“I own it.”
The man blinked. “Old Doc Cleary owns that land. You related to him?”
“No.” And why Old Doc Cleary had deeded it to his mother was a question that Chase was going to find an answer to. It was a double lot, a little over three acres, stretching from Brams Point Road in front, across a hundred yards of scattered palmettos and scrub to the house and then a short sloping backyard of dying grass to a two foot high steel sea wall, a hard packed beach whose width depending on the tide and then the Intracoastal Waterway.
“No one can live there,” the man said. “The house is—“
“I live here now,” Chase cut him off.
“I’ll give you two million for the lot. And the house, even though it isn’t worth shit since the storm put that tree down on it. Hell, it wasn’t much of a house to start with. Have to raze that piece of crap anyway.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Chase could still see the woman. Long, lean legs. Tanned. Perhaps a dancer, his mind went back beyond Sylvie; she reminded him vaguely of images of his mother, a dancer too, the memory from his hazy childhood. She stood where the gravel driveway met pavement. And not hiding her interest about what was going on in the slightest. The kid, however, had become bored and was peddling away, down the street.
“I said two million,” the man repeated.
“Heard you,” Chase said. “Not interested.”
“Listen you motherfucker, take the money or I’ll--”
Chase made up the ground between the two of them in less than three seconds, in which time the man brought the gun up and aimed it. Chase clamped his hand on the man’s wrist and twisted, the gun falling to the ground with a clatter. He shoved the man back and away from the weapon.
That should have been it, but the fire-plug guy dropped his beer and grabbed a golf club from one of the bags in the trunk and came forward. In a smooth movement, Chase went to one knee, scooping up the gun, cocking it, flipping off the safety and aiming it right between the man’s eyes. The man froze, eyes wide, club over his head.
“Good boy,” Chase said. “Down.” The man lowered the club and backed up.
Chase stood, pointed the gun toward the sky, un-cocked it, opened the cylinder, spun it, dropping the rounds onto the driveway, then tossed it into the open cooler amidst the cluster of golf bags in the trunk. It settled down in the half-melted ice with a slight gurgle.
“You have a foul mouth,” Chase said to the man he’d disarmed. “You need to rein it in.”
The man’s eyes darted to the distinguished man first, then hook-nose, which gave Chase an idea of where the power lay here. He didn’t bother with the guy who’d picked up the golf club, so that made him low man on the totem pole.
The woman was now striding up Chase’s long gravel driveway. She was older than he had initially estimated. Her pageboy cut was for someone a decade younger, but for some reason it looked just right for her. “Come on, girl,” Chase said to Chelsea, escorting her between the stands of bamboo and clusters of palmetto that dotted what he assumed was the property line and toward the house.
He heard voices embroiled in argument behind him, but couldn’t make out what anyone was saying. Chelsea hunched down and crawled under the angled oak tree trunk barring their way to the path to the front door and Chase climbed over it. Most of the tree rested on the center of the old single-story house, the roof ripped open where the heavy limbs had punched through. Strangely, the tree was alive, enough of the roots still maintaining their reach into the soil to nourish it.
Some inheritance, Chase thought. Then reconsidered, given he’d just been offered two million for the property by the jerk next door. Being military and constantly moving, it had never occurred to him that a single piece of land could be worth a lot of money. He’d fought and watched men die over other pieces of land in other places, but often those scraps of hard-earned turf were just as easily abandoned by the latest order coming down from up high as units were maneuvered around on a map by those distant from the battlefield. He’d always viewed land in terms of attack and defense and tactical concerns and blood spilled, never in terms of money.
A voice shook him out of his dark thoughts. “Excuse me.” The voice was low, feminine, and one that absolutely caught the attention.
Chase turned, looking at the woman. Mid-thirties he decided, with green eyes that had him fixed in their gaze. “Yes?” He noted the wedding band and large, glittering diamond on her left hand.
“Are you all right? I saw what happened. There are some crazy people on this island.”
Crazy people everywhere, Chase wanted to say, but checked it.
She looked past Chase, taking in the tree that had fallen on the roof. “God help this place if they ever get a hurricane.”
“Been well over a hundred years since they had a hurricane here,” Chase said automatically, remembering first getting that nugget from Kono during one of their expeditions deep into the barrier islands during their childhood adventures. Chase had always checked in the years since then, to see if the area had been savaged by Mother Nature, something that now struck him as odd. Why had he cared so much about this place?
“‘A hundred years’? Really?”
“We’re just about the westernmost part of the east coast,” Chase said. “And the water in the Atlantic gets real shallow as it comes up to these barrier islands.”
She cocked her head. “And what does that have to do with hurricanes?”
Chase shrugged. “Damned if I know. An old friend from here told me that when I asked him about it years ago.”
The woman laughed. “It sounded good though. I’m Sarah Briggs. We’re renting a house down the street.”
“We’re” Chase processed. Husband and at least one son. “I’m Chase. I just got here today.”
She held out her hand. “Pleased to meet you Chase.”
Chase shook her hand, feeling the warmth, and the slightest bit of moisture from her workout.
She turned her head, hearing the angry voices, then returned her gaze to Chase. “How did you know he wouldn’t shoot?”
Chase tried to analyze something that was second nature to him. “The guy with the gun—he’s a man who rules by bluster, money and fear and he was posturing in front of the other three. He’s a man who has others do his dirty work, probably the short guy who grabbed the club. And others.”
“Pretty theoretical and a bit of psycho-babble.”
Chase smiled. “Most importantly, he never cocked the hammer and it was still on safe.”
“You know guns.”
She was staring at him, much in the way the hook-nosed fellow had watched the confrontation. Chase stood there uncomfortably. Chelsea was eyeballing him too, probably wanting to be fed. Finally Sarah smiled again.
“You’re moving in here?”
“It’s pretty,” she said, taking in the large tree and bush-covered lot that sloped down to the half-mile wide Intracoastal Waterway. A large catamaran ferry was racing by, a cluster of tourists on the deck taking pictures. It was heading to Dafuskie Island, across the Intracoastal and slightly south.
“Thank you.” Chase was surprised at the comment, not just because of the tree nearby resting on the roof, but because the un-kempt, wild nature of his lot contrasted dramatically with the manicured lawns and exquisitely landscaped domains of all of his neighbors.
“I hope you still feel welcome after what just happened.”
“I’m already feeling more welcome,” Chase said. Chelsea whined. “I’ve got to go. Feeding time.”
“Can’t leave a lady waiting,” Sarah said. “I’ll see you around.”
Chase considered that as he watched her walk away down his long, pot-holed, gravel driveway.
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