“Chief, uh,” Joe Esposito hesitated, “Sir, it looks like we’ve got a homicide.”
“Sorry, sir, but a woman’s been found hanging with a rope around her neck.”
“Oh my God,” Mark said under his breath. He’d been coming to the island since he was a kid more than thirty years ago, and as far as he knew, there’d never been a murder in all that time.
Holy Mother, Mark thought. No one murders anyone here. That’s why I could walk to an AA meeting. Why would I need my vehicle on a nice quiet evening like this?
“Have someone come pick me up, I’ll be on the road in front of Harbor Baptist,” he kept his voice low, trying not to alert anyone at the meeting that something was wrong. “Everyone back on duty; every vehicle needs to be on patrol or at the crime scene. Get on the horn to the county sheriff’s office. We’ll need a forensics crew right away, have them chopper straight to the North Light if possible. And call the state police, tell them I want a half-dozen troopers here, with patrol cars, on the morning ferry. Tell ’em to bump people off the boat if they have to, just get here.”
Mark ended the call and glanced around the kitchen. The other AA members were talking happily to each other, sipping coffee, and munching cookies. He told himself, you’ve been coming here for months saying you needed a challenge, something to do with your life. Well, here’s your chance.
Walt walked over and asked, “Are you alright? You look terrible.”
“I may have a murder on my hands.”
The older man was stunned into silence.
“I have to go,” Mark said.
He made some quick good-byes and headed outside and down the church driveway to the road. When he had told himself he needed a challenge, a homicide investigation wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Ready or not, he was being offered a chance to get off his butt and contribute to the community that had sheltered him emotionally for the last couple of years. Was he serious about doing something besides reading books and shuffling police paperwork? He’d been hiding in a job he could do in his sleep, now it was time to prove himself. If his father were alive, Mark could imagine him saying quietly, “The community needs you. You can do this.”
I hope you're right, Dad, he thought.
At the bottom of the church driveway, Tommy Ball was waiting in a white-and-blue police Explorer. The young officer maneuvered through the town’s light traffic and headed north on Corn Neck Road. Through the dark, Mark could see phosphorescent white breakers as the waves rushed onto the beach that ran for miles along the island’s eastern side.
“What have we got so far?” Mark asked.
“Not much. A woman was found hanging from the tower of the North Light by a pair of fishermen, who went up there to do some evening surf-casting. Espo sent a couple of our guys to keep an eye on the fishermen and keep any curious types away from the lighthouse. They know they’re supposed to leave the body alone until you get there.”
As the Explorer sped up the road, the mooring lights of boats at anchor in New Harbor became visible on their left. Mark thought about his tête-à-tête with his young protege last night on Payne’s Dock.
He reached for the radio. As soon as Espo answered, Mark asked “Do we have confirmation on the state police?”
“Yes, sir. The first ferry tomorrow will be full of troopers. And the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is helicoptering a forensics crew over right now.” Espo hesitated when he mentioned the sheriff.
“What else did the sheriff say?” Mark asked.
“Well, sir, he wanted to know if you wanted him to come over. Said he would be more than willing to do anything he could, said he wanted to help you shoulder the load.”
“Shoulder the load,” Mark muttered to himself, “that pompous asshole.” Into the radio he said, “Espo, call the sheriff back, thank him profusely for his offer of assistance, and tell him I won’t hesitate to request his help and support when I need it.”
“Got it, Chief.”
“Thanks.” Mark signed off and replaced the microphone.
Tommy cleared his throat, “When you need his help, sir?”
Mark grunted in answer, “Let’s see what we find when we get to the lighthouse.”
The road climbed past small farms and stone walls, but now the hill crested. Below the wildlife preserve was a dark mass. White breakers and the charcoal gray ocean outlined the shore as it ran north to the narrow tip of the island. In the distance were the tiny lights of the mainland.
Tommy drove downhill past Sachem Pond to the small parking lot at Settler’s Rock, a memorial to the hardy bunch who had first settled the island in 1661. At the end of the lot, he stopped to shift the Explorer into four-wheel drive. As Tommy pushed the car onto the sandy path that led to the lighthouse, Mark noticed a lone moped at the otherwise empty bike racks.
“Does the moped belong to the victim?” His voice was loud over the hum of the engine and the waves breaking on the rocky beach nearby.
“We don’t know.”
Ahead, Mark could see the lighthouse, its beam periodically flashing over the water. He couldn’t see the police officers at the scene; there were no cars with emergency lights showing. Espo had probably ordered them to keep things as low-key as possible. If you don’t want a crowd, don’t have flashing lights.
The four-wheeler ground its way over the sand and closed in on the lighthouse—a high-gabled house with a light tower at its northern end. The lighthouse's dark-gray granite walls were visible in the headlights. Tommy left the lights on as he and Mark climbed out of the vehicle. Near the front entrance was another police four-wheeler with Jack Bacher standing at the ready with a pair of men outfitted in waders and fishing vests.
Jack nodded hello. “Nobody’s come by to take a look, Chief. Hank Vaughn’s on the other side, securing the beach.” He pointed to the two men and introduced them as the ones who’d discovered the body.
“Either of you go inside?” Mark asked them.
They shook their heads, and Jack said “I’m pretty sure no one’s been inside since the body was found.”
“Unless the killer’s waiting around to say hello.” Mark glanced up at the lighthouse as he spoke and turned back to Jack. “You stay here by the entrance. Take these gentlemen’s statements—have them describe where they were all day. And I want the names of people who can alibi them. Call the names into Espo and have him verify the alibis as quickly as he can. Tell Hank I want him to go back to the parking lot and make sure no one messes with that moped until forensics can print it. Have him radio in the license number so Espo can find out who owns it—probably belongs to one of the rental companies—and the rental customer’s name.”
Jack nodded and used his walkie-talkie to call Hank Vaughn. Mark turned to Tommy, “Looks like you’re the lucky guy who gets to back me up.”
Mark leaned back into the Explorer and grabbed a heavy-duty flashlight and a couple of pairs of latex gloves. He was about to shut the door, paused and reached for the Remington Model 870P shotgun in the clip under the dash. He routinely requalified with weapons every year, but he hadn’t been comfortable carrying a gun for years. Still, it would be insane to go into the lighthouse without a weapon. He checked the shotgun’s chamber and led the way up the small rise to the lighthouse. He looked up at the gray bulk of the building, which seemed much larger now that he was close to it. The granite walls had a few narrow windows and rose twenty-feet or so to a dark, gabled roof. Dark-gray clouds drifted above it through the night sky. At the northern end of the building, the light tower climbed another twenty feet or so above the roof. It was a New England classic: a completely windowed cupola, with a tiny walkway circling it.
Hanging from the walkway’s railing was a woman’s body. It swayed slowly in the wind, drifting back and forth at the end of its rope tether.
They both donned latex gloves, and Tommy pulled his pistol from his holster.
“Be damn careful with that,” Mark said. “I don’t want it pointed anywhere even remotely near my body. God knows when the last time you used that thing was.”
“Aww, come on, Chief—”
“Let’s go,” Mark said softly, cutting him off. He played his flashlight over the door knob and locks—no signs of forced entry, no scratch marks from a lock being picked. Mark opened the door. The building had been converted to a museum around the turn of the century, and the first floor was filled with life-saving equipment from the 1800s. He went to the cash register in one corner of the main room and found a set of keys. Mark didn’t pay much attention to the furnishings or displays as they quietly walked through the building, climbing stairs to reach the tower. He flipped on a light here and there, but he didn’t bother to turn on all of them, so shadows followed them through the lighthouse.
On the building's top floor, they reached a room with a spiral stairway leading to a trapdoor in the ceiling. Mark went first, dangling the keys he had picked up on the first floor. He unlocked the trapdoor, pushed it up, and climbed into the tower, easing himself into the tight space in the lens room. Tommy did the same. The lens was rotating and flashing light into the darkness. There was another small door that led to the walkway, and both men managed to squeeze through it. Mark pointed his flashlight down and flicked it on.
The woman’s face was swollen above the rope that cut into the flesh of her neck, and there were bruises on her forehead and cheek. A trickle of dried blood came from her nose, and sand and saliva at the corner of her mouth had formed a crusty patch. Her eyes were open and lifeless, staring unblinking into the light from the flashlight.
It had been years since Mark had seen a murder victim, and that time away from crime scene work hadn’t made it easier to look at a corpse. Was there really fear in the dead woman’s eyes, or was he imagining it? He reminded himself that she felt nothing.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to focus. He leaned through the rails and pointed the flashlight beam past the woman's body, shining the light on the roof of the gabled building below. The old slates were covered in manure from the seagulls. There was no sign of any footsteps.
“You think whomever did this carried her up into the tower and hung her?” Tommy asked.
“There’s facial bruising and sand in her mouth. My guess is we’ll find signs of a struggle somewhere out in the dunes. He killed her, carried the body up here, and left her.”
Mark’s flash played over the dead woman again. “This was planned,” he said. “He’d cased the lighthouse, knew the hours, knew how many people were likely to be around. He found a way to get in clean.”
“Or he works here at the lighthouse.” Tommy said then shook his head. “No, that’s too obvious. Unless he’s trying to fake us out.”
Mark shook his head, too, “No, if he works here that would make it too easy for us, too hard for him. Whoever he was he found a way to get in: picking the lot without leaving a trace , or an extra key, maybe a broken window.”
“He’s one strong son of a bitch if he carried her all the way up here.”
“Yeah,” Mark said, “he’s strong and he’s smart. And he’s going to be back. No one leaves a body this way unless he's making a statement.”
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