An early morning beach jog takes a somber turn when Sue Patrick and Lewes, Delaware’s Chief of Police, John Turner, encounter a gentleman dressed in a tux—and indisputably dead. While John runs to alert police, Sue witnesses an interloper rummaging through the victim’s pockets, right before he’s shot by a second stranger who attacks Sue. Two trusty doggy friends come to her aid, but the shooter escapes.
The well-dressed corpse was Danish conductor Georg Nielsen, darling of the classical music world. Lewes is hosting the world debut of Georg’s new sonata, and the show must go on . . . but there’s major discord amongst the musicians. Lady Anthea, Sue’s aristocratic business partner, joins her in trying to bring the curtain down on a killer. But they’ll need four-legged help to stop a maestro murderer who seems to have orchestrated the perfect crime . . .
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"Drowned," John said, carefully letting go of the corpse's wrist and rising from kneeling over the body in the sand. The dead man was on his back, his lower legs still submerged.
"In a tuxedo?" I asked, taking my eyes off the stranger so tangibly here though he'd journeyed to somewhere else. I scanned the quiet strength of the water of the Delaware Bay, so different from the nearby wild Atlantic Ocean.
He had stated the obvious. The man was dead and his body had washed up on Lewes Beach. So, while his assessment was probably correct, my clothing question was more intriguing. I looked back down at the youngish man with shoulder-length blond hair, stylishly cut and subtly highlighted, and imagined someone who in life would have evoked words like flair and worldly. In a different time, would we have called him a bon vivant?
"I can't believe I let you talk me into coming without my phone." He looked at me, I told you so all over his face.
I raised an eyebrow. "You agreed we should leave them at my place."
He was smiling as he reached out to pull me close.
I pushed back. "Not in front of him," I said, pointing to the dead man at our feet. "Kindly remember you're the chief of police." We were having our first day of real spring and while the weather was warm enough for locals to come to the beach, as many had, it was not inviting enough for anyone to venture farther than Lewes Beach proper. That is, the main section of the beach near the parking lot. John and I had smugly jogged northwest up the strip of sand, away from the masses. Now we were paying for it.
He nodded and looked around. "It didn't do much good to separate you from your phone after all. How many people have we seen here that know you?" He was right. We'd seen my Buckingham Pet Palace assistant manager, Shelby Ryan, and her Bernese Mountain Dog, Bernice, and Kate Carter with her collie mix, Robber, along with several other pet parents. "Too bad no one's around now." He ran his hand over his short hair. The gesture was so familiar to me now. He was stalling. "I hate to ask, but will you go find someone with a phone and call the station? I'll stay with him."
"You're a much faster runner. Why don't I stay here? You know I've seen a dead body before. Two. I won't fall apart."
"I also know that both times you were more upset than you let on," he answered, putting a hand on my shoulder and massaging my bare skin with his thumb.
I looked at my watch and then at the jumble of footprints leading to and from the body. "I'm okay. Just hurry. It's almost ten o'clock. The first high tide will be at ten forty."
John tilted his head and asked, "How do you know that?"
"Just find someone with a phone," I said, instead of answering that beach people keep up with both the weather forecast and the tide tables, then I shooed him away.
"This is so wrong, even for Lewes, Delaware. I'm probably breaking every rule in the book." He was still grumbling as he turned and jogged back to the populated part of Lewes Beach. I watched his back and was again surprised at how quickly he moved for a man so muscular and tall. Then I turned back to stand guard over the dead man. I let myself be mesmerized by the water lapping against my feet; thinking that since we were on the bay rather than at, say Cape Henlopen, on the ocean side of Lewes, I didn't have to contend with the strong waves to keep the body where we found it.
A breeze blew through the beach grass on the dune separating the beach from the nearest homes. Only a line of rooftops in varying styles and a balcony here and there could be seen from where I stood and waited. I wondered if it would have made more sense for John to go to one of those houses, rather than back to the growing crowd of people, then remembered how few of them were occupied this time of year. He might have had to knock on several doors before finding anyone at home. It was early spring in what we called Lower, Slower Delaware, or LSD, and summer felt so far away.
I heard a high-pitched squeal and jerked my head away from the expensive homes to see a woman and a boy walking my way. She lurched along in her strappy espadrilles, and the kid wore knee-length shorts and a baseball cap so far back on his head that the bill pointed to the sky. I'm not a kid person and could only estimate his age. He was somewhere between six and twelve years old.
"Is that crab dead?" the child yelled, pointing at his sandaled feet.
I looked down and spoke to my charge. "Uh-oh. Be right back." Then I gave the woman a friendly wave and walked the twenty or so feet to meet them. "This section is closed." That was kind of true.
The woman raised her designer sunglasses onto her head and twisted her outlined, plumped-up lips. "This is a public beach! There are no closed sections," she hissed.
I looked over her shoulder, down the beach to see if John was returning. No such luck.
"I want to find more dead crabs!" the kid wailed. If he didn't go back the way he'd come he was going to see something dead other than a crustacean.
"I'm sorry," I began. To think that seconds before I was concerned the kid would be traumatized seeing the body; now all I cared about was protecting the crime scene and the dead man's right to a little privacy and dignity. "This area is closed for now."
The kid was pointing past me and yelling, "Then why does he get to stay?"
"Nice try," I said. I was only slightly aware of movement on the berm as I turned my head. Then I saw the brat wasn't kidding. A man was hunched over the body and rummaging through his tuxedo pants pockets. "Stop!" I yelled.
"She's crazy, Mom. Let's go!" the kid said.
I took off running the short distance back to the man who had been left in my care, yelling as I sprinted, "Get away from him!"
The thief looked up but didn't stop scrounging through the dead man's pockets. He reached across the torso to the pocket on the other pant leg. His hands moved quickly and with determination, but the slack expression on his face was lights are on but nobody's home. I charged him and launched myself into the air to shove him away from the body.
Somewhere in midflight, time slowed down. I was aware that although the thief was looking in my general direction, he wasn't looking at me. Suddenly I felt myself being lifted, and as time sped up I was thrown down face-first onto the sand. While I was still wondering what in the hell was going on, a hand shoved the back of my head, holding my face under water. A knee was pressed into the small of my back, and with his other hand he pinned my right arm against my back. I struggled and fought and turned my head to the right, toward the crowd and hopefully to John. I lifted my head just an inch, but that was enough to gulp some air. He tried to yank my hair, but it was too short to grab and so he pushed me back underwater, grinding my cheeks into the small shells and pebbles. I kicked into the sand, ineffectual but I had nothing to lose. Suddenly my brain was tracking details. Like the way his fingers had stretched wide as his palm pushed down on my skull. I arched my back and pushed up with my left hand, twisting my head to the left. "Help!" I screamed when my mouth was above the water.
My attacker let go of my right arm but kept the weight of his knee on my back. I could see the man who had been going through the victim's pockets. The expression on his face metamorphosized from a stupid blank to hurt confusion and finally to terror. I heard a noise that sounded like a bang. Once. Twice. As I watched, a dot of red appeared on the T- shirt he wore, then another, then they grew. He looked down at his shirt with a baffled expression on his face, then collapsed onto the dead man in the tuxedo.
"No!" I yelled.
Then my face was back under water.
"Bitch!" the man yelled, and I realized I hadn't known my assailant was a man until then. That had been my assumption because of his strength, but until I heard his voice, it had been a guess.
I felt the movement of water next to my right ear and opened my eyes a slit, and immediately felt the sting from the saltwater. I caught a glimpse of his hand, underwater and holding the gun. I saw his thumb sinking into the sandy bottom. I saw the barrel, longer than I thought it would be, and his palm wrapped around the handle, and his wrist. Was he about to shoot me in the face?
Suddenly he pushed down on my face with much more force and determination. I felt my cheek being pierced over and over. How naive I'd been. I had actually thought that he'd only been trying to keep me down. Too much an idiot not to follow that to its logical conclusion. He intended to kill me. I never thought I would die in the ocean. My lungs had stopped hurting. I let my eyes close. All I had to do was let myself drift away.
No! I thrashed and arched my neck and upper back. Now I was in survival mode. I kicked my legs and feet again and tried for purchase in the sand. Suddenly his knee came off my spine. Then his left hand came off the back of my head and his right hand jerked out of the water.
I became aware of the sound of dogs barking as I rolled over and pushed myself to a sitting position, ignoring how my eyes stung from the salt water. I sputtered and coughed and tried to stand, but my legs weren't ready for that. Then I shook my head in an attempt to clear my vision. Bernice and Robber were running away. No, they were chasing someone.
The man roared and ran for his life. He slowed, reached around and fired his gun in the direction of the dogs. The shot went wild since he hadn't aimed. That would have scared any sane human from continuing the chase, but not dogs. The unfamiliar sound probably confused them, but they ran as fast as the soft sand would allow.
He was running again and still I hadn't seen his face. That last attempt to kill had happened so fast, and the thought that one of those majestic dogs might be lying lifeless was so shocking, that I had recoiled in horror, something I would regret later.
I had known both Bernice and Robber since they were puppies, but even if I had my wits about me, I could not have predicted whether or not they would bite a person who was running away from them. Neither had been trained as guard dogs. The tone of the barking wasn't particularly alarming, but he didn't need to know that.
Then there was a man running into the sand dune through stalks of Cape American Beach Grass behind my attacker and the two dogs, and he was a different story. Chief John Turner was trained to attack.
All four had blown by the "KEEP OFF THE DUNES AND BEACH GRASS" sign. They tromped on the beach grass, which had thick but brittle stalks easily broken just by walking through one of these areas. For the first time in my life, I was glad to see someone disturbing the dunes.CHAPTER 2
"Sue! Are you hurt? Do you think you can stand up?" Shelby yelled. She and Kate Carter reached me at the same time. Still greedily gulping air, I pulled my eyes away from the opening in the dune to look at them.
Kate jerked to a stop when she saw the two dead men. Blood from the chest of the man my assailant had shot was flowing into the water. I let Shelby help me to my feet. In an attempt to look "fine, just fine," I may have bounced upright too quickly. Anyway, I was lightheaded. I bent over and rested my hands on my knees. Now that I had the precious air I needed, the stinging from the salt water was back with a vengeance. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, which only made it worse.
I figured I could try to make sense of all that had happened later, but for now I wanted to see John and the two dogs come back to the beach and know they were all right.
"There's the police," Shelby said, still holding my elbow. She was in her late forties but never seemed to age. She had long, thick, curly red hair, and I often told her I suspected she was actually a Chia Pet. Though she was barely five feet tall, she was strong and had no trouble supporting me.
The two officers were far away and looking around. Kate waved her arms over her head. "Over here!" she yelled.
When they were closer I recognized Officer Statler and nodded at her.
"Good to see you ..." Her voice died away when she saw my face. I realized both cheeks stung, and when I gave each a swipe, grit and pebbles fell away.
A rustling to the side announced the return of the two dogs. Bernice and Robber gamboled through the opening in the sand dune and bounded up to their pet parents. I straightened to hug and thank them.
"Sue!" It was John, and he ran to me.
"Are you okay?" He tried to pull me close, but I reached my arm out, elbow locked, blocking him.
Without taking his eyes off my face, he reached for my closed fist and turned it palm up. With his other hand, he pried my fingers open. "What's this?"
I let him take the thumb drive. "It was in his pocket," I said. "I guess the water was churning so much that it floated out." I shrugged. "So I grabbed it."
John took it from me with two fingers and gently lowered my arm and hugged me. "I couldn't get to you in time," he said into the side of my wet, salty, sandy head.
"The dogs did," I said.
To say he's not a dog person would be the understatement of all time, so I was happy for this credit-where-credit's-due concession.
I pulled back and looked around his shoulders to the dunes. "He got away?"
"Someone pulled up in a car and he jumped in. I got a partial license —" Suddenly his hands fell away from my back. "Wait, didn't I leave you here with just one dead body?"
He walked around me and handed the USB drive to Officer Statler, then said, "Take a few photos." He was back in Chief Turner mode. He looked out at the distance, then down to where the water met the sand. "Then we'll pull the body back if we need to. Guess that's the best we can do while we wait for the crime scene team." I followed his gaze to the "weird perimeter," so-called because the line where the beach ended could symbolize anything or be nothing. I was listening to John, but I was disappearing, too.
A breeze came off the water and I shivered. I gave them a quick account of how while I'd been yelling at one man to leave the dead man alone, someone else had come from nowhere and tried to drown me. "I never saw his face, just his hand."
John and Officer Statler had a few more questions for me. I remembered the impression of movement in the beach grass and told them about that.
"Whose pocket is this from?" Officer Statler asked.
"Tuxedo man," I said, jerking my head in the direction of the original victim.
"Did you hear the one that attacked you say anything to his partner?" John asked, pointing to the carnage on the sand. "Or did the other man say anything?"
"No," I said, looking down at the second victim. His lank hair was light brown. The sides and back were cut short, and the top was longer. "You think they were partners?" The man who had been shot was around the age of the drowned man, but the similarities stopped there. Whereas the first victim had seemed robust, he was wiry and pasty. "If that was a partnership, it was past its sell-by date." I spoke slowly, trying to get clear on why I thought that.
"Not what I would call a good working relationship," Shelby said.
I bit my lip hard and managed not to cry. For every person who tries to kill you, there's a friend who knows just what to say. I didn't want sentimentality or drama. Her little joke had been perfect.
I cleared my throat. "I got the impression they knew one another." I thought about the way the second victim had looked at the man who, mere minutes later, was to be his killer. Maybe, just maybe, his dim expression had been fawning.
"It seems the man who fled was holding you down to give victim two time to go through victim one's pockets, probably looking for that thumb drive — but you're right, we don't know their relationship yet." As John spoke, he occasionally patted his own pockets. He was looking for his trusty notepad. How many other idiosyncrasies did we track on each other? We had been officially dating since the last murder in our little beach town of Lewes.
"Wouldn't it have made more sense to shoot me?" I asked.
"Kind of," Shelby offered.
Everyone looked at her.
"Shelby!" Kate said.
"Sorry," she apologized.
I moved over to hug her. "Ah, it's okay. He was trying to drown me, so it's not like he had a problem resorting to violence." I laughed and shook my head. That was when I glanced at Bernice and Robber and noticed how the two dogs were behaving.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Changing of the Guard Dog"
Copyright © 2019 Lane Stone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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