Neighing with Fire by Kathryn O'Sullivan is the third cozy mystery featuring Fire Chief Colleen McCabe where she believes an unearthed body and a recent fire are linked (available May 5, 2015).
Fire Chief Colleen McCabe is enjoying a quiet summer and her budding romance with Sheriff Bill Dorman. However, her peaceful start to the tourist season is shattered when a tropical storm blows through Corolla and unearths a body buried under a vacation home boardwalk. When callous land developer Denny Custis dies in a suspicious fire, Colleen has a hunch the two deaths are linked.
As she and Bill investigate, they discover that virtually everyone, including Colleen, has had a beef or run-in with Denny and a motive for murder. When Pinky Salvatore becomes the primary suspect, Colleen is determined to clear his name. Despite his and Denny's well-documented housing development rivalry, Colleen is convinced that the real killer is still out there.
While digging through an ever-widening list of suspects, Bill and Colleen become embroiled in a vicious battle between those committed to saving Corolla's wild horses, those protecting the endangered piping plover shore bird, and a greedy tour company who would destroy their habitats.
Sometimes death comes quietly, and sometimes it thunders in on the wave of a tropical storm. Tropical Storm Ana to be exact. After having wreaked havoc as a hurricane in Florida, Ana had been downgraded to a tropical storm and was now hitting the idyllic beach of the Outer Banks village of Corolla with sheets of driving rain and a storm surge that clawed at the dunes.
Sandbags had been stacked at the Monteray Plaza shop doors to stave off the inevitable rush of water. Popular summer hangouts such as Ned’s Ice Cream, Corolla Adventure Golf and Bumper Cars, and the movie theater were closed. Vacation homes had been shuttered and poolside lawn chairs and tables tied down. Spray-painted messages on plywood that covered store and house windows ranged from the entreating “Be kind to my cabana, Ana” to the forceful “Go away!” and the downright defiant: “Bring it on!”
A piece of opaque plastic sheeting ripped loose from the roof of a home under construction, made a line drive across the dunes, and then blew high into the air above the crashing waves flooding over beach access points and the two-lane roads that wound through Corolla’s oceanfront neighborhoods. The wind propelled the plastic higher, temporarily giving it the same aerial view as that of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and then the rain drove the piece down again. The plastic zigzagged up the beach, over where Route 12 transitioned from a paved to a sand road, past the fence that kept Corolla’s wild Spanish mustangs within their sanctuary, and into the four-wheel-drive-accessible community of Carova where the horses lived with the piping plover shorebird and sea turtles.
The wind suddenly shifted and the plastic took a sharp turn inland, dipping toward the Outer Banks’ second largest living dune, before swirling skyward and heading north. The sheet thrashed over the undeveloped refuge and the occasional house that popped up on the refuge’s outskirts and dotted the Carova landscape. Many of the wild horses had found their way along sand roads like Seahorse, Cornflower, and Sandfiddler and sought shelter under the beach homes. Mares and stallions squinted as the wind whipped their manes across their noses; foals huddled against their mothers for protection. Horses not lucky enough to find a safe haven under a house had moved away from the shore and into the maritime woods, deep shrub thickets, or marshlands.
The construction plastic temporarily touched down on the beach, skipped along the shoreline over ancient cedar and oak stumps, buried sea turtle eggs, and the fragile piping plover nests before being snatched from the air by a long nail on a wooden walkway that led from a beach home to the ocean. The sheet flapped violently, fighting to break free, as waves rushed forward to claim the dunes beneath the walkway and drag them into the sea. Little by little, Ana stripped sand from the walkway’s foundation, revealing more of the second, original walkway beneath it, and, with every receding wave, unearthed a long buried crime.
Fire Chief Colleen McCabe pulled her hair from her face, squared her shoulders, and peered down at construction mogul Denny Custis. He sat at a makeshift table made of sawhorses and a sheet of plywood in the middle of the driveway of an oceanfront house under construction. He squinted at a blueprint through a magnifying glass and held up a finger to silence her. She sighed and waited. Her visit with the man had not been going well. She could kick herself for letting Myrtle talk her into it. She was tired from having been up monitoring the storm with the Corolla Fire and Rescue team and the all-nighter was taking its toll. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and drilling weren’t helping.
Denny looked up from the blueprint with the magnifying glass still to his face and for a moment gave the impression of a cartoon character with one enormous fish eye. He set the piece down next to a pair of thick eyeglasses, resumed his lunch, and gazed at her. Denny was not only one of the most powerful men on the Outer Banks, but at six foot three inches tall and two hundred and seventy pounds, one of the largest. He was equal parts gruffness and charm and had a reputation for pushing the zoning limits of what could be categorized as a residence. In Colleen’s opinion, his houses were more like hotels. He was also Antonio “Pinky” Salvatore’s chief rival in the Corolla and Carova real estate development business.
“If that feeble excuse for a developer thinks he can kill the project,” Denny said between bites of macaroni salad, “he’s got another think coming.” As if for emphasis, he slammed his meaty fist down on a fly that had been buzzing around his paper plate, scraped the dead insect from the side of his palm, and resumed his meal of pulled pork, salad, and sweet tea.
A gust of wind carried a clear sheet of plastic over the dunes. Colleen watched it blow up past the crew working on the third floor of the house and noted the unusually gray June sky above them.
“You sure it’s okay for your guys to be up there so soon after the storm?” she asked, raising her voice above the whooshing of the post-storm wind and construction noise.
“You ever heard of a deadline?” he said. “Or would you rather Salvatore be the only one with new homes this summer?”
“This has nothing to do with Mr. Salvatore.”
“Yeah?” he said with a raised brow. He gave her a critical once-over. “Ain’t that who sent you?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Nobody sent me, Mr. Custis. This is part of my job.”
“If you say so.”
Frankly, she was on a spying mission. But it wasn’t for Pinky. Myrtle Crepe, Colleen’s former third-grade teacher and the obstinate leader of the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society, had asked her to check on Denny and his activity in Carova after receiving complaints that Denny’s crew had been breaking the law by feeding and taunting the wild horses.
The residents of Carova shared the four-wheel-drive-accessible beach with Corolla’s horses and other wildlife. While the majority respected their equine, feathered, and furry neighbors, some found them a nuisance. It was the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society’s job to maintain and protect the herd. But every time Myrtle or her fellow officers had driven to the sanctuary to investigate, Denny and his men were well clear of the Spanish mustangs. Myrtle suspected that one of Denny’s cronies who lived in the Carova community had been tipping Denny off, and she had repeatedly requested that Colleen pay Denny a visit to see what she could find out.
Since Colleen’s and Denny’s paths didn’t typically cross, and the northernmost beach of Carova had its own fire department, she had had to come up with a legitimate reason to call on him. A recent string of arsons of abandoned properties on the mainland had been the perfect excuse.
“As I said before,” she shouted over the miter saws. “I want to”—The sawing suddenly ceased.—“to make sure you have someone looking out for the abandoned houses you’re planning to demolish.”
Denny snorted. “You amuse me, Miss McCabe.”
“It’s Chief McCabe,” she said, annoyed. “And why is that?”
“You actually think someone would try and burn up a place owned by Denny Custis.” He shook his head, wiped his mouth, and snickered.
“There have been three arsons this month. What makes you think your properties won’t be targeted?” She winced as hammering began anew on a second floor. “You sure it’s okay for your men to be up there?”
“As sure as I am that time is money.”
Denny removed a piece of pulled pork from his plate and whistled to Sparky, Colleen’s Border collie and constant companion, who was sniffing the nearby dunes. In a flash, Sparky was at the man’s side. Denny dangled the meat before the canine. The dog eagerly leapt toward the treat only to have Denny yank it away at the last minute and howl with laughter.
Her eyes narrowed to slits. She tapped Sparky on his rump to get his attention and pointed to her SUV. “Go to the car.”
Sparky cocked his head, gazed longingly at Denny’s plate of food, and then did as commanded and flopped in the sand next to the vehicle.
Denny popped the meat into his own mouth and grinned at her while chewing.
“You find it amusing to tease animals?” she asked with an edge to her voice.
Denny wiped the back of his neck with a towel, then studied her while taking a long sip of tea. “Why are you really here?”
Before she could answer, a familiar pickup slowed and stopped at the end of the long driveway. Sparky hopped up, barked, and then, recognizing the driver, wagged his tail. Oh no, Colleen thought, and glanced at Denny squinting at the new arrival and reaching for his glasses.
“It appears that person might be lost. I’ll see if I can help,” she said and tried to appear nonchalant as she hurried away.
As she approached the pickup, her pupils widened. Sitting in the front seat was Myrtle Crepe poorly disguised as a rather eccentric man. Her former teacher sported fake sideburns, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1970s, and a dark, thick wig that Colleen suspected came from an Elvis Halloween costume. To complete her ensemble, Myrtle wore a bright orange man’s bowling shirt several sizes too large with what appeared to be a pillow stuffed underneath for a belly.
“What are you doing here, Myrtle? And why are you dressed like that?” Colleen asked, irritated that Myrtle’s presence might blow her cover. Her brows furrowed. Myrtle’s nose was growing longer in the June heat. “What’s happening to your nose?”
“Rich taught me last summer how to apply derma wax to make moles and stuff. Pretty good, if I do say so myself,” Myrtle said.
Rich Bailey had been the mortician at Bailey and Sons Funeral Services and the community theater’s makeup artist until his untimely death last summer. She was certain Rich wouldn’t have been impressed with his pupil’s skills.
“You’re a master of disguise. Are you sure you did it right?” She watched Myrtle’s fake nose slowly melting over her upper lip.
“I had to use gelatin, but it works just as well.”
“Maybe,” Colleen said, pressing on the end of the Silly Putty-like nose to keep it from falling off of Myrtle’s face.
“Stop that,” Myrtle said, swatting at her hand. Myrtle checked her nose in the rearview mirror. “Now look what you’ve done.”
Colleen glanced at Denny as Myrtle worked on fixing her misshapen snout. Denny squinted at them through his glasses. She positioned herself near the window to block as much of Denny’s view of Myrtle as possible. “I thought we agreed you’d stay away,” she whispered.
“That’s before I remembered how good I am at masquerading. Remember when I was your Uncle Mitch and—”
“Stop!” She didn’t need to reexperience the time when Myrtle had shown up at the station in disguise and pretending to be Colleen’s uncle. Living through it once had been bad enough. “Listen. You need to get out of here. Denny’s shrewd. He’ll see through your getup in a second. He already thinks I’m here spying for Pinky.”
“Pinky Salvatore? What’s he got to do with anything?”
“I was about to find out when you showed up. Now go. You’ve been here too long as it is. I’ll call you if I find anything out.”
“I tell you, if he’s been hurting the horses—”
“Myrtle!” Colleen said and slammed her hand against the pickup.
“Okay okay. I’m going. But mark my words: if someone doesn’t do something about that man, I will.” And with that Myrtle hit the gas.
Myrtle disappeared behind a dune. Given how long she had spent with Myrtle, it would be hard to convince Denny that her conversation with the “man” in the pickup had been about directions. Colleen made her way back, unsure of what story would fool him. She had never been good at lying.
“Boyfriend trouble?” he asked with a smirk when she reached him.
“What? No.” Clearly Denny was in need of an updated prescription on his glasses. “He was searching for … the access road. You know how lost people can get up here.”
Denny removed his spectacles and raised a brow. “You and I both know that fella wasn’t in need of directions.”
Great, she thought. Way to blow my cover, Myrtle.
“I’ve seen that pickup a lot lately,” he added.
“You have?” she asked, concerned.
“Don’t you worry. I’m not afraid of some stalker. Probably one of Salvatore’s guys. Speaking of which … I’m still waiting to hear the real reason for your visit.” He folded his arms over his massive chest and waited.
Maybe she was tired of the charade or maybe she was plain tired, but she figured she might as well ask him directly if he had been interfering with the wild horses. “It’s about the—”
Sparky woofed. She turned to see Raymond, the famous lone mule in Carova, with three mares. Years ago Raymond had appeared with the herd and attracted his own harem of admirers. He was known to get into scuffles with the larger stallions over territory. Despite the construction noise and Sparky barking and nipping at his heels, Raymond plodded up the driveway toward the property. One of the workers on the second floor of the house whistled and, in violation of the ordinance against feeding the horses, threw an apple down. The mule startled and Sparky growled at the apple as it rolled to a stop. One member of the crew, likely the perpetrator of the apple-tossing crime, laughed at the animals’ reactions but the rest shook their heads and resumed working.
“Sparky heel!” Colleen called.
The dog lowered the front half of his body in true Border collie herding mode and stood his ground.
“Sparky,” she said again, this time in a stern warning tone, and the dog came running with his tail wagging. She rubbed her canine buddy’s side and watched with concern as Raymond retrieved the apple and then withdrew with his harem.
“Stupid fella,” Denny said as the mule departed. “Although you gotta admire his way with the ladies.”
Her cheeks flushed red with anger. “You know it’s against the law to interfere with the horses.”
“I’ll do what I want—to anything or anyone who comes on my property.” He locked eyes with her.
Colleen’s heart rate quickened. Was he threatening her?
He heaved his body from the metal folding chair that had sunk into the sand under his weight and pushed his thumbs into the belt loops of his pants. She couldn’t help notice Denny’s large belt buckle of the smiling Porky Pig Looney Tunes cartoon surrounded by the words THAT’S ALL FOLKS! shining in the sunlight.
“You like what you see?” he said, proudly thrusting his midsection in her direction.
She shuddered slightly in disgust. One thing was abundantly clear … Denny lacked any of the chivalry of his rival.
His smile faded to a scowl. “You tell Salvatore I’m not giving up on that property, and he better surrender his claim to it if he knows what’s good for him.”
What was Denny talking about? She wasn’t aware of any property dispute between the two developers. She studied his face. Perspiration beaded on his upper lip and the left side of his mouth twitched slightly.
“Will there be anything else?” he asked through clenched teeth. “Some of us have work.”
She took a slow, deep breath. She had done as Myrtle had asked. She had checked on Denny’s construction site and the horses. There was no point getting into an altercation.
“No,” she said. “But I suggest you keep an eye on your properties.”
“Don’t you go worrying your pretty little head about me,” he said and held up a fist. “I know this land and the people who live here like the back of my own hand. If something was amiss, I’d catch wind of it.”
“Then I won’t need to speak with you further.” She touched Sparky’s neck and turned away.
“Tell Salvatore that if he wants to spy on me he shouldn’t send a girl to do his dirty work,” he called after her.
She contemplated laying into the man, but instead marched to her SUV, opened the door, hopped in after Sparky, and slammed the door closed. It wouldn’t do for her to be Denny’s enemy … although he had just become hers.
She backed onto the sandy road. It would be good to get away from Denny and the noise of the construction site. The visit had given her a headache. A horn blew signaling the crew that it was time for their lunch break. The hammering, sawing, and drilling ceased. It was then that they all heard it—a woman’s high-pitched scream.
She slammed on the brakes. Two workers on the second floor hurried to the edge of what would soon be a balcony and pointed to a house a short distance beyond several dunes. She hit the gas, sending sand flying, and sped toward the spot.
Two high dunes marked the driveway entrance and made it difficult to see anything but the roof of the house. She parked on the shoulder in case emergency vehicles needed access to the driveway and sprinted toward the sounds of yelling coming from the ocean side. Sparky took the lead and disappeared behind the house.
She rounded a corner and was surprised to find the back area deserted. The sea breeze carried with it excited voices from the beach. She dashed to a flight of stairs that led to the ocean and took the sagging wooden steps two at a time, slipping in the sand that now covered them.
“Stop!” came a voice from below when she reached the top.
She slid to a halt and grabbed the railing to keep from falling. Sparky barked from below and circled a man and woman in their forties and their golden retriever. With one hand the man held the woman’s torso in a protective gesture and with the other the golden retriever’s collar. The woman stared with her hands to her mouth at the space under the steps.
“Sparky, stay,” Colleen said. The dog whimpered but stopped circling and sat next to the golden retriever. “What’s going on?” she called to the man and woman.
“It’s a body!” the woman blurted out, then covered her mouth again.
“Or what’s left of it,” said the man.
Had a dolphin or some other sea creature washed ashore in last night’s storm? She inched to the end of the walkway, peered over the railing, and tilted her head. Wooden boards from the original walkway were scattered over the sand but she couldn’t see anything that resembled a body. Colleen clutched the railing, leaned over it to get a better look, and then saw what had grabbed the couple’s attention. Protruding from the area beneath the double walkways was no dolphin or shark but the outstretched fingers of a shriveled and ashen human hand.
Copyright © 2015 Kathryn O'Sullivan.
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Kathryn O'Sullivan is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. She is also an award-winning playwright and web series creator and a theatre professor at Northern Virginia Community College. O'Sullivan lives with her husband, an award-winning film & video director and cinematographer, and their rascally rescue cat in Reston, Virginia.