Before leaving the parish center, the chief issued new instructions to the troopers for what he termed a “low-profile” security plan, and, via radio, to the cops at the station and on patrol. Burnside remained behind with his forensics team as Mark and Laura went outside to his Jeep.
“Well, two crime scenes in a week—I bet none of your other dates has ever shown you such a good time,” Mark said.
“No question about it, you’re the master.”
“Hard to believe I’m available, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t push it, if I were you.”
He put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick hug. “One of these days, we’ll have a normal date.”
“Just what constitutes a normal date?”
As they drove along the quiet roads they heard crickets chirping. Lights in cottage windows seemed to offer safety and warmth. The island’s dark landscape couldn’t possibly harbor a murderer, Mark thought, but the Dark Saint was out there somewhere.
Laura broke their silence, “What if you’re wrong about Kessler and Father Walton?”
“I made my best guess. Now I’ve got to live with it. Do you think I should have thrown a safety net over the padre?”
“I really don’t know what you should have done. I guess I just want a guarantee that everything’s going to be okay.”
“I wish I could give you one.”
“I know,” she said, and gazed out the window as they drove past the turn for his house. “Wouldn’t you like some help cleaning up the dinner dishes?”
“Nope. I’ll let all the dinner crap soak overnight and deal with it in the morning.” He thought that over for a few seconds. “Maybe not in the morning, either.”
The ride from Mark’s house to hers was short, but they still passed two state police cruisers on the way.
Laura said, “Well, if Kessler’s out and about tonight, he’s got lots of company.”
Mark grunted in response and turned onto Laura’s street and a moment later into the driveway to her house, stopping opposite the front door. They both sat quietly for a second.
Laura said, “Is there any way to stop him?”
“Stop the Dark Saint?” Mark was staring out the windshield, seeing nothing but the night’s darkness. “It sounds like the name of some character he’s playing, doesn’t it? I read somewhere that serial killers are the performance artists of the late twentieth century. Bizarre theory, but I suppose it’s possible.”
“You think Kessler’s performing for us?”
“That’s part of it. Why else kill Catholics? Why in a cross pattern? And why does always he leave his fingerprints? Oh yeah, I think we can be pretty darn sure he’s performing. And . . . ” his voice trailed off.
“It's more than a performance. He's taunting us, daring us. I'm pretty sure he loves the challenge of a tight little island with a super-saturated police presence. He loves the fact that he knows us.”
“Does that mean you can't stop him?”
“If we don’t, he’ll kill the entire island. Most businesses here go from season to season, and a lot of them won’t survive if this summer disappears. On top of that, if Kessler kills a bunch of people and vanishes, his specter will haunt the island and destroy the tourist business for years. That would finish a lot of the islanders.” Mark turned to Laura, “I can’t let that happen. This place means too much to me.”
“You sound as if you’re taking this personally.”
“It is personal.”
“That’s probably not a good way to stop the Dark Saint.”
“I hate that name,” Mark said. “It makes him sound supernatural. He’s not; he’s a man. A smart, well-trained, twisted man, but only a man. Kessler’s going to screw up one of these days and when he does, I’ll get him.”
Laura was like a school girl with a crush, but she realized she was proud of Mark. He was totally committed to fighting Kessler, to save the island. But he was emotionally involved, and his anger made him vulnerable. She reached over and stroked his cheek with her forefinger.
“After everything that’s happened I’m a little too revved up to call it a night. What about you?” she asked.
“What did you have in mind?”
She laughed, “Nothing that will satisfy the evil look in your eye, buddy.”
“That’s lust, not evil.”
“Either way, forget it. I was thinking a walk might be nice.”
“You know how to walk, don’t you? Just put one foot in front of the other and—”
“I think I can remember the rest. Where are we going that's safe?”
“Champlin’s. We could go window shopping for boats.”
“Fine, but let’s drive there and walk around the docks.”
“Oh come on, Mark, it’s a five-minute walk from here.”
“Along a dark road with thick bushes and trees lining it and houses that are spread thinly. I’d like to think I can handle Mr. Kessler if it ever comes to that, but I’d rather it not come to that. Okay?”
She nodded, “Let’s go.”
* * *
Kessler had enjoyed the frenzied activity at the parish center. He watched the comings and goings of the police. Laura Schiller’s presence had been a surprise but a pleasant one. His brief views of her were quite nice. More interestingly, she must be tremendously important to Chief Sheridan or he never would have brought her. Kessler especially enjoyed the fact that the chief had left her locked inside a vehicle with a shotgun. If Kessler hadn’t been so busy avoiding the police, he might have taken it away from her, just to prove to them he could. But that would have been taking a chance without a tactical payoff. His primary mission had been to deliver a message about the priest, and it been received loud and clear.
After the police cleared out of the parish center, Kessler was keyed up. It was past midnight, but he was energized by his patrol into the parish center.
Since he hadn’t planned any mission to take place after his foray to the parish center, Kessler told himself he wouldn’t do anything too precipitous. But he’d spent a great deal of the day scouting the island, watching the police patrols and Coast Guard boats. Should opportunity present itself, he was prepared. He realized that the island’s familiarity was stimulating him, driving him. That was acceptable. Aggression was often a key element in successful operations. Tonight, he’d go out and see what developed. For the next step in making his cross, he needed a victim somewhere near the Great Salt Pond, probably around the New Harbor area.
He decided to go hunting at Champlin’s marina.
* * *
Mark parked his Jeep on the hill above the marina, and he and Laura walked past the marina's large main building with a restaurant and headed down toward the docks. The building jutted from the side of the hill, and the lower level housed a laundry and a small convenience store. On the front of the store were the posters with the four versions of Kessler’s face.
Laura stopped to look at them and reached for Mark’s hand. They wandered onto the rough wooden planking of the piers, taking in the smell of salt water and tar and listening to the water gently lapping against the hulls of boats. Almost reflexively, Mark reached for the volume control on his radio, turning it as low as he could but still hear if anything happened.
Laura gestured with her free hand, “Lots of empty slips.”
“I wish the reason was that it’s early in the season.”
“Come on,” she tugged at his arm, “there’s still plenty for us to check out.”
They ignored the big power cruisers and lingered over sailboats. Laura pointed out a small sloop she would love to own. Mark agreed it was nice and pointed to another that he thought deserved serious consideration.
“We might have to take one of each,” Laura said. “His and hers boats.”
Mark grinned, “Might be nicer to sail together.”
“You’re probably the type who frowns on separate bedrooms.”
“They came in mighty handy for my parents.” The words were light, without a trace of self-pity.
“You shouldn’t settle for that kind of relationship.”
“What about you and your ex? Did it ever get to that?”
“We went from sharing a king-sized bed to her ushering me out the door.” He shook his head at the memory, “She threw me out of my home and pushed me away from my son. I should have been angry or sad, but the only thing I felt was relief: I didn’t have to listen to her bitching about my drinking.” He turned to her. “How messed up is that?”
“You’re different now.”
“I hope so.”
“I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”
Mark nodded and took in the night view of the harbor. Across the water, boats were moored at the Block Island Marina and beyond that at Payne’s Dock. The water was black with white ripples where the lights from boats caught the surface. Out in the Great Salt Pond, boats drifted at their moorings. They were quiet, dark shapes that seemed to float on the night as much as on the water.
Mark said, “Speaking of being different, you’re not the same as your parents, either.”
Laura mulled that over for a second. “One boat might do it.”
“What about separate bedrooms?”
“I’m not ready to worry about bedrooms just yet.”
Laura leaned against a large piling. She was still holding his hand and pulled him close, putting her arms around his neck and kissing him.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“Reminding me that people can change.”
“The power of positive thinking.”
“If living were as easy as thinking, I’d have it made.”
“I didn’t become a shining example of the good life in one easy step. It took a little time.”
She smiled and kissed him again. A very long kiss.
A man cleared his throat loudly. They snapped out of the kiss with startled grins as a middle-aged couple walked past them on the narrow dock.
“Serves us right for being romantic in a public place,” Laura said.
“Maybe we should mosey along.”
“Good idea.” She put her arm around his waist, and they walked down the dock.
* * *
Kessler had departed the parish center very cautiously and traveled quickly to New Harbor, running at a steady pace and ducking off the road and out of the glare of headlights whenever a car passed him. He evaded three police cruisers along the way. When he reached New Harbor he went into the Block Island Marina. He walked down the long drive toward The Oar, the marina’s bar. He could hear music and voices, but even from a distance it was obvious that business was bad. As he reached the cars parked at The Oar, he turned left and went around the lot, going behind a long, low building that housed small shops for the marina’s boating customers, walking through the tall grass and shrubs that lined their back walls.
When he reached the shore of the harbor, he walked away from the lights of the marina. The rocky beach was treacherous at night, but Kessler knew it well and made his way easily along until he neared the glow from Champlin’s dock lights. Once he reached the pier itself, he strolled along it slowly and gave every boat the once-over. Anyone of them might be the source of a victim or a weapon.
He stopped opposite a large power cruiser with a flying bridge and sophisticated electronics on its mast. A fishing chair was bolted to the stern deck. Near the chair, a folding canvas table had been set up. A half-empty bottle of beer stood on it, next to an ashtray with a still-smoking cigarette. What intrigued Kessler wasn’t the beer, the cigarette, or any of the boat’s accoutrements. It was the fishing knife that lay mixed with some other equipment on the deck at the chair’s base. From where Kessler stood, he guessed the blade was about six-inches long, and if it was sharp enough to gut fish, it would do very well for what he now had in mind.
Glancing toward the cruiser’s cabin, Kessler saw no signs of the occupants. He grabbed the stern railing, pulled himself up, and leaned in over the stern. He heard footsteps inside the cabin but kept his eyes on the knife, reaching for it with his right hand. He pushed aside a gaff and wrapped his fingers around the knife handle.
Someone was climbing the cabin stairs, the footsteps were louder. Kessler swung back down to the dock as the door to the cabin opened and a lean, dark-haired man stepped out onto the deck. He moved toward the chair and his beer, stopped and turned toward Kessler.
“Nice boat,” Kessler said, the knife tucked behind him, under his belt.
“She’s all right.”
“Expensive to run, right?”
Kessler heard a woman laughing.
It was Sheridan and the blonde, strolling down the dock in his direction. They were about forty feet away. For a moment, he was frozen in shock. The woman laughed again, and the sound of her voice snapped Kessler out of it. In a second or two, they’d be close enough to recognize him, and his public persona would be unable to explain his presence at Champlin’s at this late time of night.
“Well, enjoy your stay here,” he said to the man in the boat.
“Have a safe trip.”
“Do my best.”
Kessler gave the man a little wave and quickly walked up the dock away from Sheridan and the woman. He turned onto a small siding off the main dock and immediately realized he’d made a mistake. The siding dead-ended only fifty feet away and there was no place to hide. Only a few small sailboats were tied up here.
The couple was coming closer. They were totally involved with each other, but in very short time they’d see him. Kessler took one more quick look around to see if he had missed any potential hiding places, but his only options were the harbor waters or one of the small sailboats tied up on the dock’s siding.
Moving carefully so he wouldn’t rock the nearest sailboat, Kessler stepped over its rail and put a foot on the deck. He swung his other foot over slowly, making certain he didn’t disturb the owners if they were on board. He slipped around the mast to the far side of the low cabin and lay down on the deck. He could hear voices inside the cabin. A man said something and a woman giggled. The boat began rocking.
On the dock, Sheridan and Laura came down the siding. They were very close. Watching from under the boom, Kessler could see their legs and hear them talking. He reached to his back and pulled the knife out of his belt. If he had to use it, he would take Sheridan first. Looking at their legs, Kessler saw that the woman was on the chief’s left. If Sheridan were right-handed, he’d be reaching to his left for the gun in his shoulder holster and she would be in the way. It would cause the chief a half-second delay, and that’s all the time Kessler would need.
Mark pointed at the boat and said to Laura, “Nice, but a little small.”
“It looks fine to me. Enough room for two.”
“If you’re inseparable.” Mark paused and leaned closer to the boat.
Kessler got ready to leap. In another second, he’d have no choice.
Mark shifted his gaze to the water line and turned to Laura and whispered, “Speaking of inseparable, this boat is rocking.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“This is a public place. As chief of police it might be incumbent upon me—”
Kessler tensed the muscles in his legs. If Sheridan leaned any closer, he’d attack, cutting the man’s throat with one quick slash.
Laura smiled and took Mark’s arm, interrupting him, “Time to leave.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go quietly.”
They walked back to the main dock. Kessler relaxed as he watched them disappear. Inside the cabin, the woman giggled again as the rocking motion continued.
After the boat stopped rocking, Kessler waited a few minutes, catching bits of the lovers’ post-coital murmurs. When he thought he had given Sheridan and the blonde enough time to clear the area, he climbed back onto the dock and slid the knife under his belt. He walked to the main pier and stopped. Should he patrol some more, hoping for an opportunity? The longer he was out on Champlin’s docks, the more likely that his public persona would be caught by someone like Sheridan and he would have no explanation.
Frustrated and angry, the Dark Saint turned for home.
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