Rhonda drove toward the pier at her usual breakneck speed, with her high beams on. There were no other cars on the street and the windows of all the houses were dark. She wasn’t running her siren.
“What do you know?” I asked her.
“The phones are working again. Someone from the house called it in about a half hour ago.”
“Accident? Murder? Suicide?” my employer asked from the back seat.
“Knifed. Dead. That’s all I know.”
“On the deck, or at least that’s where the body was found.”
She drove onto the pier and pulled up next to a ramp where a deputy stood waiting. “Come on” Rhonda said and we followed her down the ramp to the floating platform where the boat was tied up. There were gaps between the rough planks where the water was visible.
A man stood at the controls (if that’s the right term — I don’t know anything about boats). I walked slowly down the ramp, with my employer behind me. She was walking carefully, holding onto the rope railing, but the uneven surface and the tilt and the motion from the water made it difficult for her to keep her footing.
Not that I was gliding along with sure-footed grace and elegance either.
On the platform, there was a wooden box with three steps, to get us up onto the deck of the boat. There was no railing to hold onto, and my employer looked at me, giving me silent permission to help her. I got up to the top step, and then I turned and held out my hand. She gripped it firmly and climbed up, one careful step at a time.
As she reached the top step, I moved backward onto the deck of the boat, and then I helped her over the gunwale (I had to look that word up) so that she was beside me.
She gave my hand a quick squeeze before releasing it.
Rhonda and the deputy cast off the lines and we were on our way. The boat was compact, with a small cabin in the front, surrounded by windows, where the pilot was. There was a narrow door beside him which probably led to a tiny indoor sleeping area.
In the rear (aft? stern?) there was a high seat, facing the back of the boat, which looked like it was intended for serious fishing activities. It had a seat belt and shoulder straps.
The sea was a little choppy, and we were moving fast. A big light on the bow illuminated the water in front of us, but otherwise it was dark, and the wind and the motor would have made conversation difficult, so we didn’t bother.
My employer was sitting on a small bench, holding onto the boat with one hand and her cane with the other. Her hair whipped around her narrow face, and a couple of times she had to wipe salt spray from her glasses with her sleeve. Her expression was neutral.
If you wanted to travel by car (or jitney) from the town center to the college campus, and then from there to Heron Island, you had to go the long way around, by the highway, because there was an inlet between the two land masses — the town center and the campus — which ran right up to the highway.
By the water, though, it was only a few minutes from the town pier to Heron Island.
During that brief trip, I was torn between two topics I could have been fretting about, knowing I probably wouldn’t have enough time to thoroughly worry about both of them.
Should I use my limited time to wonder why Rhonda had come to get us in the first place? Or should I wonder where we’d be landing, and would I be able to get my employer out of the boat and onto dry land with at least some of her dignity intact? (And would we have to tackle those stairs from the beach up to Heron House?)
I hadn’t made any real progress on either question when I heard the motors slow and we approached a small pier. The land around it seemed deserted — I didn’t see any buildings or lights, just darkness, stars, and trees.
The pier stuck out into the water only about twelve or fifteen feet, just one series of unsteady-looking planks and a couple of big vertical pilings. There were no other boats.
We pulled up alongside the pier and the deputy tied us up.
Rhonda got up onto the little pier somewhat more awkwardly than the deputy had. We were bobbing up and down in the water, and I knew that my employer was not likely to make it to the little dock by herself without ending up in the sea.
The deputy was up on the beach already, talking on the radio, facing away from us, so I motioned for Rhonda to turn around. Then, when no eyes were on us, I scooped my employer up in my arms and got her safely onto the pier. She weighed next to nothing, so this was quick and easy.
Rhonda led us through the trees (she and the deputy had brought flashlights, fortunately) and onto a familiar-looking “road” that took us up a hill and around a bend to Heron House. All the lights in the house seemed to be on — they were the only lights I could see anywhere.
I heard the boat start up and head off into the darkness behind us.