It's mid-August in the Outer Banks village of Corolla in North Carolina and Fire Chief Colleen McCabe is conducting rookie training and spending increasingly more time with her best friend, Sheriff Bill Dorman. The wild horses have been relocated to the sanctuary, and the town is occupied with the upcoming local theatre production. All is right with the world. But when a member of the acting troupe is found dead in the dunes after an emergency training exercise and Bill's ex-fiancée arrives in town, Colleen knows trouble is back with a vengeance.
A second member of the theatre company is discovered dead at the Whalehead Club, and Colleen is forced to put aside her feelings about her relationship with Bill and work with him to uncover who is murdering the thespians and why. She discovers as much drama offstage as on and quickly finds herself swept up in the intrigue of the community theatre group, and struggling to keep her men at the firehouse focused. As the danger mounts and the killer's identity becomes clearer, Bill warns her off the investigation. But despite his warning, Colleen is determined to stop the killer before he or she strikes again, to her own peril.
In Murder on the Hoof, her sequel to Foal Play, Kathryn O'Sullivan delivers more laughs and mayhem with charming characters mystery readers will love getting to know.
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About the Author
Kathryn O’Sullivan is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, an award-winning playwright and creator of the Western Web series Thurston, and a theatre professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She is the author of Murder on the Hoof and Foal Play. She lives in Virginia with her husband, an award-winning director and cinematographer, and their rascally rescue cat, Oscar.
Read an Excerpt
Fire chief Colleen McCabe scrutinized the sea of battered bodies scattered on the beach like shells after high tide. Nearly a dozen of Corolla’s citizens were slumped in the sand. Firefighters and EMTs rushed about the scene, performing first aid on the injured, who groaned in pain and clutched damaged limbs. Other victims lay eerily motionless in the hot morning sun. Sparky, Colleen’s Border collie, paced—one ear up and head cocked—as the rescue team called out vital signs, stabilized neck injuries, and carried individuals to nearby ambulances.
The wounded were familiar to Colleen, active members of the Corolla community, which added to the disturbing nature of the scene. Nellie Byrd, the popular owner of Nell’s Gift Shop and Rentals, slouched at the foot of a dune, clutching her thigh and wincing as Kenny Ward, one of Colleen’s firefighters, carefully examined her ankle.
“A duck and a flea,” Kenny said softly to Nellie.
Nellie blinked at Kenny, dazed.
“Come on, Nell. Twenty-three. A duck and a flea,” he said again, prompting her.
“Thee and me,” she responded with a weak smile.
Kenny was reminding Nellie of their mutual love of the Whalehead Station’s Bingo Night, and Colleen nodded in approval at his ability to establish rapport and keep Nellie calm. Satisfied that Nellie was in good hands, Colleen focused on the rest of her team. One of her men tended to Rita Riddle, a woman in her late fifties and owner of Great Escapes clothing store. Rita sat unusually still as her head and right eye were carefully wrapped with gauze. Other rescuers efficiently applied pressure to wounds, examined victims for concussions, and wrapped those in shock in reflective blankets to keep their body temperature steady and protect them from the sizzling August heat.
Colleen eyed the growing crowd of onlookers. There were now almost two dozen people in bathing suits, shorts, and sun hats gathered at the scene’s perimeter, pointing, whispering, and recording with cell phones. Much to her annoyance, one bystander was tossing popcorn in the air, attracting a flock of squawking seagulls. Colleen was thankful Bill Dorman, her best friend and the Currituck County sheriff, was there to keep the vacationers at a safe distance and informed about the details of the unfolding event. Bill could command a crowd with a single word and a stern expression.
The ocean breeze shifted and carried a gust of humid air and a loud wail over the area. Myrtle Crepe, Colleen’s crabby retired third-grade teacher and head of the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society, writhed in the sand, with blood oozing from an ugly gash on her forehead. Myrtle gasped, her face the picture of agony, then panted rapidly, moaned once more, and collapsed in a woozy heap.
Colleen watched with apprehension as chubby Bobby Crepe, one of her firefighters in training, crouched next to his mother and attempted to take her pulse. Remaining objective and professional while performing medical treatment on family members was often difficult.
“How’s it going?” Bill asked.
Just then, Myrtle yelped, yanked her wrist away from her son, and bolted upright. “You’re doing it wrong, Little Bobby. Don’t use your thumb!” she barked, all signs of wooziness gone.
“Are you breaking character?” Bobby asked with a tisk and shake of his head.
Myrtle clenched her mouth shut and flumped back in the sand with a resigned huff. Bobby suppressed a grin and took his mother’s wrist again.
“Maybe it wasn’t a good idea having Bobby practice on Myrtle,” Colleen said.
“You wanted him to experience the worst-case scenario,” Bill said with a wink.
She checked the time and signaled Jimmy Bartlett, her well-respected veteran captain.
Jimmy blew a short blast on his whistle. “Okay, everyone, that’s the end of the training exercise,” he called out.
One by one, the wounded citizens rose, smiling and shaking hands with the firefighters and EMTs who had been working on them. The crowd of vacationers clapped and whistled, prompting some of the role players to take a bow. Sparky barked and ran among the “injured,” curiously sniffing the fake bloody wounds. The seagulls screamed at the dispersing crowd and flew away down the beach.
Colleen had had her doubts when it had first been suggested, but Myrtle and her fellow community theater actors had done a fine job playing victims for her firefighter and EMT training session. She had been particularly impressed with the makeup skills of Rich Bailey, the eldest son and funeral director at Bailey and Sons Funeral Services. Rich had created remarkably convincing latex gashes, derma wax broken noses, and oozing contusions. In the past, Colleen had had her team use a moulage kit to craft injuries, but their work was amateurish at best compared to Rich’s. I guess there’s nothing like the makeup skills of a professional mortician, she thought. Rich’s expert makeup techniques, combined with the unpredictability of working with strangers, had proved a more realistic and valuable experience for her team than working on one another.
Nellie removed the bandage from her ankle and waved happily to her nephew, Adam Jones, who was standing nearby, recording the entire exercise. Adam had recently graduated from film school and had been in town for the last month helping Doc Wales, the local equine veterinarian, rewrite Wild and Free, a play about the history of the Corolla Spanish mustangs, for the community theater’s and Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society’s upcoming fund-raising production. Nellie had convinced Adam to film the training to help Colleen and her team.
Lane Walker, a handsome gray-haired member of the theater group with a Casanova reputation, straightened his shirt and strode toward Adam. “Would you like an interview, young man?” he asked. It wasn’t so much a question as an authoritative offer.
“Sure,” Adam said, and focused the camera on Lane.
Colleen marveled at how actors seemed to truly enjoy being in the spotlight. She had always been more of a behind-the-scenes person. Yes, as fire chief she was often the focus of attention and could turn on the charm for public events and press conferences, but her natural inclination was one of introversion. If born into a wealthy family, Colleen was certain she would have led a life of lazy solitude, reading books, gardening, and perhaps even learning to play the piano. But she had grown up with hardworking, ambitious parents who had instilled those values in their daughter. When she took more than a day off of work, she felt downright slothful.
Colleen listened to Lane regale Adam about a character he had played on Red Alert, a 1970s cop television show, as well as his detailed preparation for today’s role as accident victim.
“Look at him,” said Myrtle in a disapproving voice as she joined Colleen and Bill. “Always the scene stealer.”
Lane’s experience in Hollywood was clearly trumping Myrtle’s acting experience in college.
“Lane’s certainly popular,” Colleen said, knowing the comment would provoke Myrtle.
“Hmpf. That’s because he flirts with anything in a skirt. Makes me utterly uncomfortable.”
“If Lane’s been troubling you, Myrtle, just say the word and I’ll talk to him,” Bill teased.
“Oh!” Myrtle exclaimed, not appreciating Bill’s joke. “Men,” she added, and marched off toward Nellie.
“What was that about?” Bill asked, genuinely surprised.
“I suspect it has something to do with the play production,” Colleen guessed. “You know Myrtle hates it when anyone challenges her authority. And Lane has professional acting chops, something Myrtle lacks.”
The remaining actors joined Lane to listen to his interview. Among them were Sam Riddle, a retired businessman turned Food Lion employee; his wife, Rita; and Fawn Harkins, a recent college graduate and, at twenty-one years old, the youngest member of the acting troupe.
Several EMTs crowded around Fawn, offering to help carry her over the sand to show off their strength. Colleen watched with concern as one by one her men hoisted a giggling Fawn into the air. The young woman was a natural beauty with a pretty smile, dimpled cheeks, sun-kissed skin, long tresses, and a curvy figure that moved unencumbered beneath her flowing tie-dyed dress. Colleen didn’t begrudge Fawn the attention; she was a vibrant young woman with obvious assets. It was how Fawn had become a source of tension at the station that concerned her.
Fawn was the girlfriend of Chip Reed, one of Colleen’s EMTs. About a month ago at a family and friends station picnic, Chip had caught Fawn flirting with the other men. Colleen had had to step in before it came to blows and had ordered everyone to leave the dramatics to the community theater group. Anything that interfered with her guys working as a team was not only unwelcome; it was dangerous. She was glad Chip was delayed returning to town from visiting a sick relative. He wouldn’t have liked seeing his girlfriend feeling the biceps and quads of his fellow EMTs and firefighters.
“That girl’s trouble,” Bill said, observing Fawn.
“You have no idea.” Colleen’s phone buzzed, alerting her to a message. “Not again.”
Bill squinted at her quizzically.
She glanced at the text: CONFIRMING ARRIVAL OF CAST/CREW OF REMEMBERING ALWAYS. LOOKING FORWARD TO MEETING YOU.—W.E.
“It’s Wendy Everett, the production manager from Zeon Pictures,” Colleen said, rolling her eyes and returning her phone to her pocket. “I’m getting a dozen texts from her a day.”
“You can’t blame her for wanting to make sure everything is in order. We’re not L.A. types.”
“We’re not island bumpkins, either,” she said with indignation.
“It’s not every day we get studio folks in town. People are excited. You have to admit it’s good for business.”
She shook her head. Between the theater group and film company, Corolla was being overrun by actors, and the movie was all anyone had been talking about for weeks. “I heard the lead actress—what’s her name?”
“Hayley Thorpe,” Bill offered.
“That’s it. She’s a soap star, I think.… Heard she’s a handful.”
“Perhaps we should reserve judgment about Ms. Thorpe until she gets here,” he said with a firmness that surprised her.
“Great. All the guys at the firehouse are swooning. Now you, too?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, amused. “I’m not the swooning type.”
“We’ll see,” she said with skepticism.
Colleen spotted Rich Bailey closing his makeup kit. “Hey, Rich,” she called out. “Good job today.”
“It’s always nice working on the living,” he said. “Let me know if I can help again.”
Bill put on his sunglasses. “Unless you need me, I’ll be heading back to the office.”
Colleen surveyed the scene. Her men had packed up the last of the equipment and were lingering to chat with the actors and a handful of curious vacationers. “Looks like we’re good,” she said, and whistled for Sparky. The dog spotted her and came running. “We still on for dinner?”
“You bet,” Bill said with a nod, and moved to go.
“You Chief McCabe?” asked an approaching man with a burned beer belly wearing plaid swim trunks and flip-flops.
“You all done with your training stuff?”
The beer-bellied man raised his brows. “Then someone oughta tell that lady over there on the dune before she cooks herself,” he said, and gestured to an area beyond where they had been practicing.
Colleen squinted in the direction of the dune. “Thank you,” she replied, puzzled.
“No problem,” the man said with a wave, and lumbered off toward Lighthouse Drive.
“Wonder who it could be,” Bill said, joining her as she trudged through the sand with Sparky at her side.
“A Method actor,” she said with a shake of the head.
They marched to the foot of the dune, rounded the corner, and discovered Doris Jenkins unconscious in the sand. Doris was a plump, curvaceous woman in her sixties and an actor with the community theater group. Sparky lowered his head, cautiously approached the woman, and sniffed her leg.
“Sparky, heel,” Colleen commanded. The dog whimpered but obediently retreated. She squatted next to the woman and nudged her shoulder. “Doris?” Nothing. She scanned Doris’s face. Despite the rising temperature and humidity, Doris’s coloring was pale. Colleen tilted her head close to Doris’s mouth. The woman wasn’t breathing.
Damn. She grabbed Doris’s wrist and confirmed her fear: no pulse. She shifted her position, wiped the saliva from Doris’s mouth with the bottom of her shirt, and started CPR. “Get Jimmy on the phone.”
“Already on it,” Bill said, hitting speed dial.
“Tell him to get the guys back out here,” she said while rhythmically pressing on Doris’s chest.
“Jimmy? Bill here,” he said into the phone as he moved away toward the beach. “Chief McCabe needs the rescue guys north of the training area ASAP.”
“And Bill?” she called over her shoulder. “Tell him this isn’t an exercise.”
He disappeared around the dune to help Colleen’s men find their location.
Colleen scrutinized the woman’s unresponsive face as she performed CPR. After multiple attempts at revival, she reluctantly stopped her rescue efforts and noted the time on her watch. It was no use. Doris was dead; she had been for some time. Colleen wiped sweat from her forehead and upper lip, stood, and kicked the sand in frustration.
Jimmy and Bobby soon arrived with the stretcher. Thirty yards down the beach, children played happily in the waves as Colleen’s men gently placed Doris’s body into the body bag for transportation to the morgue. She heard the zip of the body bag behind her. Jimmy and Bobby lifted the stretcher.
“You did great today, Bobby,” she said, noticing his pensive expression as he passed. “Don’t let this get you down.”
“Thanks, Chief,” he said, dejected.
Jimmy nodded to her and they vanished around the dune.
Sparky moaned, wanting to follow. “Okay,” she said, patting the dog’s rump. “Go to the station.” And with that, the dog took off to accompany her men the short distance to the firehouse.
She gazed up the beach with sadness. She couldn’t help feeling partially responsible for Doris’s death. She shouldn’t have allowed someone of her years to spend so much time in the heat. Older adults had a more difficult time regulating body temperature. Doris had died right under her nose, with an entire team of EMTs nearby. She rubbed her temples, trying to push away the mounting headache and feelings of guilt.
“You okay?” Bill asked.
Colleen shrugged. No, she wasn’t okay. She was angry. Angry that somehow she might have contributed to Doris’s death.
“You can’t beat yourself up about this.”
“After everything that happened last month with Max Cascio, I thought we had had enough death for one summer.”
The two watched in silence as the ocean pushed toward land, then withdrew again. Life had returned to normal in the weeks since the arrest of Max Cascio, nephew of Antonio “Pinky” Salvatore, one of Corolla’s most successful developers. The federal agents were gone, the horses had been returned to the sanctuary, Myrtle’s house restoration was under way, Bobby had begun firefighter training, and Myrtle and Nellie were busy with the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society and the upcoming theater production. Colleen and Pinky were even forging a new friendship—what type of friendship it was, she still wasn’t entirely sure of yet—but things had changed between them after Pinky had donated a house intended for demolition to the station for a Burn-to-Learn drill.
She and Bill had also grown closer since Max’s arrest—but not as close as she had hoped. They had shared movie nights and dinners and had even arranged to take off work for a day trip down to Ocracoke, at the southern end of the Outer Banks, to hear Ocracoke’s native musicians at the Deepwater Creek Theater and Music Hall, but Colleen couldn’t help feeling that there was something preventing their relationship from deepening. Still, she was happy they seemed to be moving away from a purely platonic one. She stole a look at him. As if sensing her gaze, he turned and smiled.
“I’d better head back,” she said. She couldn’t spend all day staring at the ocean. “I’ve got a lot to talk about with my team.”
They marched through the sand to the short boardwalk at Dolphin Street that intersected with and linked the beach to Lighthouse Drive, where Bill’s SUV was parked on the shoulder of the road.
“I’ll check on Marvin,” he said, and opened his door. “It’s not going to be easy for him without Doris.”
“I don’t envy you,” she said with sincerity. She had always found it difficult to be around the grieving. “Mind if we take a rain check on dinner? I could be a while at the station.”
“Not at all. Call me if you need anything.”
Colleen gave Bill a short wave as he pulled onto Lighthouse Drive. She took a deep breath and then headed along Dolphin Street to the firehouse to check on her team.
Copyright © 2014 by Kathryn O’Sullivan