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The Final Victim
By Wendy Corsi Staub
PrologueIt took two years for her to come back to the beach.
Two years, the divorce, and the realization that life must go on.
Charlotte Remington, who took back her maiden name after her husband left, has no choice but to keep getting up in the morning, keep moving, keep breathing ... if only for her remaining child's sake.
How many times during the initial shock did she have to remind herself to do just that?
Breathe, Charlotte. In and out. Just breathe. Keep breathing, even though your chest is constricted and your heart is breaking; even though you want to stop breathing ...
Even though you want to die.
Charlotte Remington thought she had everything: loyal husband, loving son, happy-go-lucky daughter, loyal friends.
Now they're all gone.
Now there is only Charlotte, haunted and bereft; and a sad-eyed little girl who watched her big brother drown on a beautiful July day, just yards from the shoreline.
But it happened a long time ago; a lifetime ago.
The first time, afterward, that Charlotte returned to the southeastern shore of Achoco Island to inhale brackish air, feel sand beneath her feet, and gaze again over the sea, she wanted to flee.
But she forced herself to stay.
Breathe. Just keep breathing.
And she forced herself to keep coming back, all through that first summer without Adam. And again the following year. And the one afterthat ...
It's been five years now.
Five years and seven weeks, to be exact.
Here she sits amidst the Labor Day weekend crowd, the day after a lavish family wedding. She has a pounding headache, though not from overindulging last night: the wedding was dry. Grandaddy, a fiercely dedicated teetotaler, won't allow liquor to cross his threshold. But there was a band, and a crowd, and Charlotte danced too much, and stayed up far too late chatting with people she hadn't seen in years.
It was fun. She has few regrets about last night as she lounges in her blue and white striped canvas sand chair with her woven sweetgrass hat on her aching head, a romance novel in her hands, and her daughter at her side.
Lianna never goes into the water. Not here. Not anywhere. Not even a pool.
The other parents in Charlotte's bereavement support group back in Savannah have experienced similar reactions in their surviving children. One, who lost a teenager in a traffic accident, said his younger son had panic attacks for months every time they got into the car. Another, whose toddler succumbed to a rare stomach disease, said the older sibling eventually developed anorexia, afraid to eat lest she somehow "catch" what her little sister had.
Perhaps Lianna will never venture into the water again. Then again, maybe she will. The child psychiatrist she's been seeing since the tragedy told Charlotte not to push her.
So she doesn't.
She just brings her to the island beach on beautiful summer days, where they sit companionably side by side with their books, and they breathe salt air.
The beach is postcard-perfection on this, the last official weekend of summer.
Down beyond the dunes, where sea oats sway in the warm salt breeze, bright-colored blankets and umbrellas dot powdery sand. Crisp white sails skim the horizon. The ocean air is rife with the sounds of gleeful children splashing in the surf, the incessant roar of the waves, the squawking of circling gulls, the hum of banner-toting planes cruising the coast.
Largely unpopulated until the last decade or so, Achoco Island lies off the coast of Georgia, about midway between Tybee and the Golden Isles; nowhere near the tourist hub of either. The entire northern end, above the longer of the two mainland causeways, consists of a wetland wildlife refuge and what remains of the Remington family's private estate.
But the island's southeastern shore is teeming with activity on this cloudless September afternoon. A steady stream of beach traffic snakes from the boardwalk beyond the dunes to both the north and south causeways, and no doubt all the way back to the mainland highway to Interstate 95.
That's why this day was chosen. Because of all the people.
The holiday crowd surpasses every expectation and will serve its purpose. Nobody pays the least bit of attention to the lone occupant of a blanket carefully spread a strategic distance from any of the three lifeguard towers.
Nobody suspects that this idyllic holiday weekend is about to give way to chaos-and tragedy-the likes of which this beach hasn't seen in five years.
Or, to be more precise, five years and seven weeks.
"Well, look at you! If it isn't Mimi Gaspar, all grown up and gorgeous!"
Perched high above the sun-baked sand on the wooden lifeguard tower, Mimi-nee Martha Maude- Gaspar doesn't allow her gaze to leave the surf for even a split second.
The waters off Georgia's crowded island beach are choppy today, courtesy of a new tropical depression churning six hundred miles southeast in the Caribbean.
Anyway, she can identify the speaker by his voice alone, though it's been a few years since she heard Gib Remington's trademark low-pitched, lazy drawl. A fake drawl, as far as Mimi is concerned.
He didn't even grow up in the South-he was raised in Rhode Island, where his mother's family lived. After he was kicked out of his boarding school there, he was sent to Telfair Academy, his father's and grandfather's alma mater down here, presumably where his stern Grandaddy could keep an eye on him. A lot of good that did.
"What's the matter, you're still not speaking to me?" he asks.
"I figured y'all were back for your sister's wedding yesterday," Mimi says at last.
The beautiful Phyllida Remington might be living among the movie stars in California's Beverly Hills- with hopes of becoming one herself-but she chose to marry at the family's nineteenth-century mansion right here in the Low Country. The wedding was the social event of the summer for the hundreds who were invited.
Mimi was not among them. She doubts she'd have been welcome even if she was still dating Gib. He never did bring her home to meet his family.
"I'm only here till tomorrow. I'm flying back up to Boston first thing in the morning," Gib informs her importantly. "The fall semester starts Wednesday."
Law school. Some fancy one in New England, maybe Ivy League. She doesn't know for certain, and she doesn't care.
"What about yours?" Gib asks.
"My what?" She skims the whitecaps for the pale head of a surfer who just took a harrowing tumble off his board. It's one of the Tinkston brothers, probably Kevin, the youngest of the four notorious local hell-raisers. Down at the water's edge, two fellow lifeguards stand at the ready with orange rescue tubes.
"Your fall semester."
Once upon a time, her future was promising. She had been a full-scholarship student at Telfair Academy-live out, of course-and followed up her high school career with another free ride at Georgia Southern. She was working on a degree in international studies, dreaming of one day moving abroad.
But that was before Daddy, a fisherman and heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung disease.
Now, as beach season draws to a close and her pals prepare to head back to dormitories and lecture halls, she'll be peddling her meager resume around Savannah. She has to get a regular job and help her parents make ends meet-never an easy task for them, but nearly impossible now.
"Let's hook up tonight and catch up," Gib suggests, undaunted by her failure to respond to his last question. "What time are you off duty?"
Ignoring that as well, Mimi watches the Tinkston boy resurface among the breakers and promptly paddle back out with his board in tow, resilient, she thinks, as her ex-boyfriend here at the base of the lifeguard tower. Gib seems to have forgotten that the last time they saw each other she informed him she never wanted to see him again.
Technically, she still hasn't. Seen him, that is.
But curiosity gets the best of her now. She flicks her gaze downward to catch a glimpse of him.
Excerpted from The Final Victim by Wendy Corsi Staub Excerpted by permission.
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