The large deck across the back of Heron House looked like a stage set for some reason — like that moment when the curtain goes up and the actors are just about to start doing things.
There were railings on the three open sides, with one small staircase in the left corner. That led to a narrow path which went beside the house to the parking area in front.
Near the staircase, leaning back in a wicker chair with her long legs extended in front of her as if she didn’t have a care in the world, was my employer. There was a mug of coffee on the small glass table next to her, and a tiny muffin on a large plate. She was not eating the muffin, but it was in the exact center of the plate. I had the idea that she had placed it there as part of setting this scene.
Mary, who had brought the case to us the night before, was standing by the edge of the deck, near the center of the long side that overlooked the beach. Two other women, Jo and the taller woman who had been with her on the road, were standing on the far side of the deck from my employer. It appeared that they’d been talking intently, but now they were frozen in silence, apparently because of the sudden arrival of the sheriff.
“Greetings, Rhonda,” my employer said with a smile. “The body is down on the beach.” She gestured with her cigarette, and then she looked at me. “The staircase is rather steep and appears to be precarious, so it will be interesting to see…”
Her voice trailed off as Rhonda elbowed me in the ribs and jerked her head toward the front of the house. I followed her out.
“I’ve been here before,” she said. “When I was a deputy. The staircase down to the beach is a horror show. I think they keep it just to freak people out, especially the drunks. But there are other ways to get down there. We’ll have to cut through the neighbor’s property, but she won’t complain.”
We walked along a narrow path that seemed to be mostly theoretical, tightly hemmed in by pine trees, and she said quietly, “Is she making progress, do you think? Progress she’s not ready to share with you, or me?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
She smiled. “Of course you don’t.”
We came out of the woods into the yard of a smaller cottage with a well-trimmed and pleasant lawn. A woman in a sweatshirt, baggy shorts, and beach sandals looked up from some flower beds and stood, apparently startled. “Sheriff–”
Rhonda, not slowing, looking very serious and sheriff-y, breezed past her and led me behind the house.
This house was on a lower bluff than Heron House, so we were closer to the beach, and the path was made of stones, with a rope to hold onto as we made our way down.
On the beach, we walked back toward Heron House. The beach was wide and smooth with the tide out, about twenty feet down to the edge of the water.
We could see the body as soon as we stepped toward the water. It was a black mound in the almost trackless sand.
Not that the sand was pristine — the high tide and the storm had swept in bracken and dead crabs and some other things that I couldn’t identify. This detritus went all the way to the edge of the rise that led up to the houses, indicating, to my inexpert eye, that the high tide the night before had covered the whole beach in this area.
As we got closer to the body, Rhonda gestured at a specific point on the beach, clearly telling me that I was to get that close and no closer. I complied. I knew Rhonda well enough by this point to be able to tell when she was open to teasing, and when she wasn’t.
From that vantage point, I was able to see the impressions of footprints between the body and the “staircase” that led up to Heron House. They were the only footprints that I could see.
This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to watch Rhonda examine a body, and she seemed to know what she was doing. She could be pretty breezy when talking about death, at least with me (“So, you’ve got a body?”), but she was very serious about her actual work. There were no jokes now.
What I noticed first about the dead man, from my distance, was that he was almost certainly not a college student, and he didn’t look like a local. He was probably in his late thirties or early forties, wearing a black suit and a pale blue shirt. He had a small beard and mustache — very well trimmed.
He might have been a college professor, and I reflected that he was probably the only person on Heron Island in a suit and tie — other than my employer, of course.
His outfit wasn’t up to her standards, though. His black suit jacket had silver threads throughout, but it looked cheap and tacky, even apart from the damage it had taken from being on the beach during a rainstorm. It was the sort of jacket that looks more impressive on a stage than it does in real life.
I had a sudden tightness in my throat. I’d had the same sensation almost exactly a year before, in another country, and it had led me to shove my employer into a ditch, saving her life from a sniper’s bullet.
I looked up, and I saw someone on the Heron House deck, leaning over the railing and watching us with binoculars.