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A shriek much like the distress cry of a black-crowned night heron pierced the morning quiet.
Atop one of the tall sand dunes at Springer's Point, Betsy Michaels turned from studying the ocean below and peered behind her at the gnarled oaks of the maritime forest, the last one on Ocracoke Island. A shout from somewhere beyond the forest's edge echoed on the cold wind, and she squinted at the sandy trail leading back through the trees.
She listened for a few seconds and then relaxed. It was only the wind blowing through the trees. She turned back toward the ocean but whirled around again when the crack of two rapid gunshots split the early morning air.
Anger replaced the fear she'd felt moments ago. Guns weren't allowed in the 120-acre protected sanctuary of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. She unzipped her fanny pack and pulled out her cell phone. Before she could punch in the number of the Ocracoke sheriff's office, a man stumbled from the thick growth of the forest and reeled toward her.
Blood covered the front of his shirt. He held out a hand toward her. Terrified, Betsy took a step backward. The man hobbled another step before he sank to his knees. "P-please.. " he mumbled " . .h-help me."
Betsy hesitated a moment, then rushed forward. Horrified, she grabbed his arms and eased him to the ground.
"I'll call the sheriff's office for help." She punched in the first number of the island headquarters where her brother and brother-in-law worked as deputies.
He grimaced with pain and tried to raise his head. "Caught me."
Betsy's heart pounded at the thought of impending danger. "Is someone following you?"
His hand clutched at her unzipped fanny pack. "Tell him."
Betsy glanced over her shoulder and scanned the thick trees before she turned back to the man. His hand drifted from her fanny pack to the ground. "Don't talk," she said. "I'll get help for you."
Her sister-in-law, Lisa Michaels, answered on the first ring. "Sheriff's office."
"Lisa, it's Betsy. I'm at Springer's Point with a man who's been shot. He needs help right away."
"I'm notifying EMTs and deputies right now. Stay on the phone with me until they get there. Is it a bad wound?"
"I think so, but.. "
The man tugged at her arm. "Decoys," he whispered.
Betsy frowned and glanced across the inlet. Duck hunting season was months away. There were no decoys in sight today. She shook her head. "Hush. Save your strength."
He gritted his teeth and grasped her arm. "Tell him decoys not what they seem."
"Tell who?" Her heart lurched at the life fading from his eyes. She bent closer. "Can you hear me?" His chest heaved one last breath, and his body stilled. She nudged his shoulder. "Don't give up. Help will be here soon." When he didn't answer, she pressed her fingers to his wrist but felt no pulse. She clasped his hand in hers and closed her eyes. "Oh, God, please don't let this man die. Give him the strength to hold on until help arrives."
"Betsy? What's going on?" Lisa's voice startled her and her eyes flew open.
Her hand shook as she raised the phone to her ear. "I think he's dead." The thought sent a wave of panic flooding through her. Whoever shot him could be watching her this very moment. She cast a frightened look over her shoulder. "Where are those EMTs?"
"They're in the parking area. They're heading down the trail now, but it's quite a hike to the Point. Are you doing okay?"
Another cold wind blew in from the ocean and Betsy shivered. "I am, but I wish they'd hurry."
"Hey!" a voice yelled. "What are you doing?"
Betsy jumped to her feet and spun to see who had called out. A man stood at the edge of the forest. She gripped her cell phone tighter. "Lisa, a man just came out of the forest."
"Who is he?"
Betsy squinted in an effort to make out his features. At this distance, she could only determine he was tall. "I don't know, but he looks threatening. Are Brock and Scott behind the EMTs?"
"They're both on duty today and are on their way. What's the man doing now?"
Before Betsy could speak, the man charged in her direction. "He's coming toward me."
"Get out of there, Betsy. Now!"
Two options flashed into Betsy's head. Make a run on the trail through the forest or slide down the steep dunes to the small inlet beach below. But she'd never make it through the tangle of flowering yucca and sea oxeye that covered the dunes.
"There's nowhere to go!"
"Does he have a gun?"
"I don't see one." The tactics she'd learned in her self-defense class rushed through her head. Taking a deep breath, Betsy planted her feet in a wide stance and held up her hand. "Stop where you are," she yelled. "I'm on the phone with the police. They'll be here any minute."
The man stopped, then inched forward. He shook his head in disbelief. "Betsy?"
Shivers ran up her spine at the sound of the voice from the past. "Mark?" she gasped. "Mark Webber? Is it really you?"
Moments ago, Betsy had thought her heart would burst with fear, but it was nothing compared to the way it raced at the sight of the man she'd tried to erase from her memory. Her first thought was of how glad she was to see him, but that changed in an instant to suspicion. She glanced behind her in hopes the EMTs were close.
"W-what are you doing on Ocracoke?"
He frowned. "I'll tell you later. You said you called the police." He glanced at the man at her feet. "How is he?"
"I think he's dead."
He rubbed his hand across his head as she remembered seeing him do in the past. Then his dark hair had been thick, but now it was close-cropped and spiked. His former clean-shaven look was gone, and in its place he sported a beard consisting of a thin line of hair extended from his sideburns and along his jawline into a pencil mustache. But the biggest surprise was the spiked leather cuff bracelet he wore and the silver stud in one ear.
He knelt beside the man and checked his pulse before he pushed to his feet. "You're right. He's dead. We'd better wait for the police and let them sort this whole thing out."
Betsy's eyes grew wide at the lack of emotion in Mark's words. What was the matter with him? A man lay dead at their feet, and he acted like it was just a normal day. She glanced down at the dead man again and clenched her fists at her side. Her heart constricted at the thought that somewhere this man had family who had no idea what had happened. Maybe Mark didn't care that a man had lost his life, but she did. But then she'd learned long ago that Mark didn't care for anyone but himself.
Betsy wanted to scream at him, to demand he tell her what had brought him to Springer's Point this morning and why he looked like a rap star who had just stepped offstage. Before she could confront him, he turned his back, walked to the edge of dunes, and stared at the water below. She glanced down at the cell phone in her hand and brought it back to her ear.
"Lisa, are you still there?"
"Betsy, I've been going out of my mind. What's happening there?"
She wished she could answer that question, but at the moment she had no idea. "All I know is there is a dead man on the dunes and a man I used to know came out of the woods. Where are Brock and Scott now?"
"They're right behind the EMTs. They should arrive any minute."
"Thanks, Lisa. I'll talk to you later." She disconnected the call, slipped the cell phone in her fanny pack, and zipped it closed. She felt better knowing Brock, her sister's husband, and her brother were the deputies on duty this morning. Maybe they could get to the bottom of who was responsible for the man's death. Betsy stared at Mark's back, and the need for answers welled up in her.
She clenched her fists. "Mark, answer my question. What are you doing on Ocracoke?"
He turned slowly and faced her. "I'm on vacation."
"Vacation? You've never come here before." She let her gaze drift over him, and the truth hit her. A bitter taste poured into her mouth and her lip curled into a sneer. "You're undercover again, aren't you?"
His shoulders drooped, and he took a step toward her.
Before he could finish, the EMTs burst from the forest and onto the dunes. She and Mark backed away as they began to work on the man at their feet. Within minutes, Brock and Scott emerged from the trail and rushed toward her.
Scott grabbed her by the arms. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. "I am. Just still a little shaken, though." She glanced at Mark over her shoulder and made the proper introductions.
Scott released her and cleared his throat. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Webber. What were you doing at Springer's Point this morning?"
"Out sightseeing." Surprise flickered in Mark's eyes, and he glanced at Betsy. "I didn't know you had a brother. I thought you just had two sisters."
Brock turned a puzzled look toward her. "Betsy, do you know this man?" Brock asked.
"Yes, but I haven't seen him in years." She glanced at Mark. "As for my brother, his mother was our father's first wife. We were reunited a few years ago."
His eyes darted from Scott to Brock. "I see."
The muscle in Scott's jaw twitched, but he didn't speak. After a few seconds he pulled a notepad from his pocket. "Betsy, can you tell us what happened?"
He wrote as she related the events of the morning.
When she'd finished, he flipped the notepad closed. "Brock, do you have any questions for Betsy?"
Brock, who'd been unusually quiet since he appeared on the scene, shook his head. "I think we need to find out where the shooting occurred. Since Betsy told us where he emerged from the forest, we need to get busy." He turned to Mark. "Maybe you heard something while you were sightseeing, like what direction the shots came from."
Mark nodded. "I don't know much, but I'll be glad to help any way I can."
Brock gritted his teeth and took a step closer to the body. He bent forward and stared down at the still figure. Arnold Culver, one of the EMTs, rose to his feet. "There's nothing we can do for this guy, Brock. There's no identification on the body. In fact there's nothing in his pockets at all. Even the label has been cut out of his shirt. That seems strange."
Brock and Scott exchanged quick glances. "We'll start checking around the island. Maybe somebody knows him," Brock said.
Arnold nodded. "It would be a shame if he has family waiting in some motel." The EMT rubbed his chin and cocked an eyebrow. "But if he does, it looks like he'd have some kind of identification. At least a driver's license."
"Yeah, it sure does."
Arnold shrugged. "Is it okay if we transport him to the health center?"
Brock stared at the body a moment before he exhaled. "Yeah, go ahead. We'll stay and look for the murder scene. I'll stop by the health center when we get back to the village." He glanced over his shoulder at Betsy. "I saw your bicycle in the parking lot. I'd rather you didn't ride it back to the village. After all, there's a murderer somewhere out here. Go back with Arnold and I'll bring your bike to the station. Okay?"
She was tempted to ask Mark if he would be going to the station, too. When she glanced at him, a veil descended over his eyes, and she knew she'd been right when she asked if he was undercover again. She had seen that look before. Betsy pulled her attention away from Mark and waited until Arnold and his assistant had finished bagging the body.
Arnold smiled at her. "Ready to go, Betsy?"
"Yes." She glanced one more time at Mark, but he still hadn't looked at her.
Brock hooked his thumbs in his service belt and inclined his head toward the forest. "Okay, Mr. Webber, suppose you show us where you were when you heard the shots."
Without speaking, Mark headed toward the spot where he'd exited the forest. Brock and Scott followed behind. She stared at Mark's back a moment, and the memory of his walking away from her once before washed over her. With one last glance in his direction, she jogged after Arnold and his assistant, who had already disappeared down the trail.
As she hurried to catch up with the EMTs, she thought about the look in Mark's eyes when he'd first seen her. Was it surprise, or was it something else? Could he possibly have been happy to see her? She frowned and shook her head. Thinking like that could get her in trouble. It had once before.
Whatever he felt when he first saw her, it had changed in an instant. The old Mark had emerged and brought back all the memories she'd tried to push from her mind. The veiled look had alerted her to what she wished she'd seen when she first met him.