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"Come on, Jess-everything's riding on you."
Those words of encouragement came from Barbara Wirth, known to everyone in the town of Cabot Cove as "Babs." Babs and her husband, Hal, hosted what had become an annual event on Labor Day, a barbecue complete with friendly games, tasty grilled fare, finger food passed by well-dressed servers, and sumptuous desserts. A high-spirited memorial to the summer that had passed and the fall season now upon us. The couple's tennis court had been busy all afternoon, and the free-form pool ensured that the youngsters would be tuckered out (with puckered skin) and ready for bed when the festivities ended.
The horseshoe pit had been active all afternoon as well. The sound of the metal horseshoes hitting the iron spikes driven into the ground was a constant reminder that horseshoes was a popular game for young and old alike. I'd once read that it was a spin-off from the game of quoits, dating back two thousand years to just after horseshoes themselves had been invented. All I knew was that they seemed to get heavier with each toss, making me wonder how the poor horses managed with them nailed to their hooves.
The party had started to wind down. But the families gathering their belongings and saying their good-byes to Hal and Babs seemed equally matched by newcomers arriving unfashionably late. It was the day before the traditional start of school, explaining why this party, inevitably, lingered into the early-evening hours under the floodlights the Wirths had set up with just that expectation in mind. The sun was poised to dip behind the mountains in the distance, and those who'd elected to spend their day on the beach, a short walk from the Wirths' expansive property, brushed sand off their feet and bathing suits as they arrived.
I'd intended to join those who were leaving until Babs convinced me to team up with her for a final game of horseshoes. Our opponents were the town historian, Tim Purdy, and Brad Crandall, an old-timer known as the best horseshoe thrower in town. Standing nearby, camera in hand, was Eve Simpson, Cabot Cove's premier Realtor and gossip, two avocations that apparently went hand in hand. Eve was holding the camera but didn't seem to be taking any pictures. Servers from Cabot Cove Catering, meanwhile, filtered through the crowd, dispensing their wares with napkins to spare. A healthy assortment of the company's most delectable treats, now that we'd entered the dessert phase of the festivities, had replaced the trays of finger foods. My mouth watered at the sight of the bite-sized brownies, but I watched the last one snatched from the tray just before the server reached me.
I guess it wasn't my day.
We were down to the final tosses. Tim and Brad had twenty points, one shy of the winning number. Babs and I had surprised everyone (including ourselves) by accumulating eighteen points, three shy of the winning number of twenty-one. It was my turn to throw my two horseshoes at the iron stake, which stood forty feet from where I was poised to take what would be the final turn. I'd need a "ringer," worth three points, in which the horseshoe encircles the stake, for us to win. I didn't suffer any illusions that I was capable of such a toss, especially now that the horseshoe I was hefting felt heavier than the bicycle I often had to lift over the curb to chain in place.
"You can do it, Jess!" Babs assured me, upbeat as ever.
Her rosy voice made for a fitting match with her appearance. She had a headful of red curls that framed flawless, smooth skin that looked as though it belonged in a skilled artist's portrait. And her trim, athletic figure hadn't changed an ounce in the nine years I'd known her, as she looked more like someone who rode horses than tossed their shoes.
I eyed the stake, which seemed to be farther away than forty feet. The horseshoe, which weighed all of two and a half pounds, made me list to the side on which I was holding it. I drew a deep breath and glanced at Tim and Brad, whose bemused expressions reflected confidence in their victory. Then I closed my eyes, opened them, focused on the stake, and pitched the horseshoe, which caught the final rays of sun as it sailed through the air.
To my delight, the harsh sound of the horseshoe clanging against the iron stake rang in my ears.
"It's a ringer, Jess!" Babs yelled. "You tossed a ringer! We won!"
I guess it was my day, after all.
Tim gave me a hug. Brad, a sour expression on his weathered face, mumbled congratulations and walked away.
"Wait till I tell Hal," Babs bubbled. "Where is he?"
I fell in behind Babs in search of her husband. As we approached the sprawling New England-style house, we passed my dear friend Dr. Seth Hazlitt, who'd driven me to the gathering. People in town wonder why I've never learned to drive a car and trust my bicycle to get around, and look askance at me for having taken flying lessons and earning my private pilot's license. I'm not sure that I can adequately explain why I have a license to fly but not one that allows me to drive, and I've given up trying to figure it out myself. I guess one of the great things about Cabot Cove is you don't need a car to get around, much less a plane. I also hadn't needed either when I spent much of my time at the Manhattan apartment I seldom visited these days.
"Anything you'd like to say to Babs and Hal?" Eve Simpson said, approaching with her Canon still in her grasp. "I'm making a video for their anniversary."
I'd forgotten it was coming up. "Making a video with what?"
She held up her camera. "This."
"I thought you said video."
"I did," Eve said, shooting me the kind of stare adults aim at ten-year-olds. "This records video, too-on a memory card," she added, popping it from its slot. "See?"
I watched Eve slide the tiny thing back in. "What should I say?"
She positioned herself before me. "Whatever comes to mind. You and Seth are the last ones I need to get."
I remembered Eve spending the party circulating through the crowd with the camera dangling from her neck, mining for gossip, I thought, but now I realized her intentions had been considerably more hospitable.
"Ready whenever you are," I said.
"Just start whenever you're ready."
I smiled and plunged right in. "Congratulations, Hal and Babs. I feel like I've known you forever and I guess I have, at least since you moved to Cabot Cove. I watched your beautiful daughter, Alyssa, grow up and can only hope you've dissuaded her from becoming a writer. On the chance you haven't, my offer to serve as mentor still stands, so long as I don't have to teach her how to drive!" I stopped and moved my gaze from the camera to Eve. "How was that?"
"Ready to leave, Jessica?" Seth asked, coming up from behind me.
"Sure, but you need to record a video for Eve first, congratulating Babs and Hal on their anniversary."
"Ayuh. Sure thing. But where's the camera?"
Eve had begun to launch into her explanation anew when her eyes widened at the sight of someone passing between us and the entrance to the kitchen.
"My God, do you know who that is?"
I followed her gaze to a youngish man striding toward the outdoor bar with an empty drink glass.
"Can't say that I do."
"It's Deacon Westhausen, for God's sake."
The name rang a bell, but it took me a moment to realize the source of Eve's excitement.
"Of course, the tech giant," I said, watching as Westhausen was intercepted by a trio of party guests en route to the bar.
"Tech giant? That's putting it mildly. The man's Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson all rolled into one."
"I've read the stories, Eve," I said, not bothering to hide my lack of enthusiasm for Cabot Cove's latest local celebrity, who was building a massive home in a previously protected area of wetlands right on the bluffs forming the cove that gave our town its name. This in return for the sizable investment he'd made in the long-awaited expansion of our cherished marina. "And I've also read the stories questioning the source of his income."
"I think you're just jealous over not being the most famous person in town anymore. And look at all the jobs the amphitheater he's building at the marina has brought to town."
"Then we should dismiss the rumors about his cutting corners and using substandard building materials?"
"Yes, because that's all they are-rumors. Spread by those who are jealous of his success and all the good he's doing for this town."
"I don't count that monstrosity he's building off the docks as anything good, Eve."
She scampered across the lawn, weaving a zigzagging path toward Deacon Westhausen and leaving me to follow Babs through a door leading directly into the kitchen to say my good-byes.
"Hal?" Babs called out before I could say anything.
The kitchen was empty, or it seemed to be. But then I saw half of a man's shoe protruding from behind a large island used for prepping food. I approached it to have a better look. The shoe was attached to a leg-Hal Wirth's leg.
"Hal!" Babs shrieked.
I rushed out the door to get Seth, the primary care doctor for pretty much the entire town. But I didn't have to go far, since he was already running toward me, having heard Babs's anguished cry.
"What's wrong?" he asked as we shouldered through the door, trailed by Eve Simpson, camera in hand.
"It's Hal Wirth," I managed, barely. "I think he's dead."
The sun had dipped behind the mountains when Seth and I set out behind the ambulance transporting Hal to Cabot Cove Hospital. I sat shocked in the passenger seat while Seth drove. He was uncharacteristically quiet, stunned by the tragic conclusion to what had been a joyous Labor Day. Hal's health had seemed to be fine throughout the party; he'd spent the day mixing and mingling with guests or tossing a football with a few teenagers.
There was a period of time toward the end of the day, though, when he and Seth ensconced themselves in a secluded corner of the property and sat together on a green wrought iron bench. From my vantage point, and from Hal's body language, I judged the subject of their impromptu conversation to be serious and not for other ears. They conferred for twenty minutes before Hal stood and walked away, leaving Seth alone on the bench to ponder what had transpired.
I hadn't seen him again until he lay supine in the kitchen. Had he suffered a heart attack? Although it's unusual for people in their late forties to succumb to a coronary, I'd immediately assumed that had to be the cause of his sudden collapse. Or . . .
As a mystery writer, I have to discipline myself not to imagine crimes unfolding on every corner and not to see something nefarious in every sudden and inexplicable passing. Still, in Hal's case, the fact that he'd been so buoyant just minutes before aroused my suspicions, whether warranted or not.
"I saw you and Hal huddled off by yourselves for a time, Seth," I worked myself up to say. "I have to ask what it was about."
"No, you don't, Jessica. Just like you know I can't share what we discussed. Doctor-patient privilege."
"Then you were discussing Hal's health."
"I didn't say that."
"You implied it. Just give me a notion."
"All I can tell you is that we didn't discuss his physical health."
It sounded strange the way Seth said that, but I didn't pester him further. People in Cabot Cove confided everything to Seth. He was the classic small-town doctor in an age where insurance companies were making such practices almost impossible to keep up. Seth was the exception to the rule, and I respected him too much to press him on the issue.
Meanwhile, thank heavens a medical professional had been there. Seth had recognized a pulse in Hal's jugular vein and shouted for the crowd that had gathered to call 911. He'd also instructed people to direct the paramedics to where Hal lay, while continuing to tend to him.
"Every second counts in situations like this," Cabot Cove's beloved physician said, kneeling over Hal to continue his CPR efforts.
Although the ambulance and its crew of two EMS paramedics arrived within minutes, it seemed an eternity to me. Cabot Cove's emergency personnel don't typically have much to keep them busy, although that was changing with an influx of new residents packing the town to its very gills, especially in the summer season, which was now drawing to a close. But the speed with which they showed up impressed me. Hal was fitted with an oxygen mask and rushed into the back of the ambulance. Babs, who'd been standing at the rear of the crowd, her fist pressed tightly against her lips to stifle the cry of anguish building inside, climbed into the vehicle with her husband. The sun was setting and, with it, summer itself. I could only hope the darkening sky didn't prove a portent for Hal's prognosis.
When Babs and Hal Wirth had arrived in Cabot Cove almost ten years ago, they injected a burst of youthful energy to a town that had begun to grow insular and perhaps too set in its ways. Their daughter, Alyssa, was in grade school when they chose our village as their new home, and Babs immediately threw herself into town activities, particularly as an active participant in the PTA and the historical society. She was also a skilled painter. My friend Mara was delighted to hang an exhibit of BabsÕs work in her luncheonette, and one of BabsÕs best-loved pieces, a seascape of the view beyond the bluffs, hung permanently on the luncheonetteÕs wall. IÕd also bought one of her paintings, now displayed proudly in my own home.
Babs had become one of my most treasured friends, a bond that became tighter as the years passed. A woman I've trusted with my innermost sentiments and secrets, she'd always been there whenever I felt the need to reminisce about my late husband, Frank, and had done her best to put a smile on my face, a consideration I was ready to return in kind. Now that such a time had come, it would fall on me to help support her through this ordeal, facing the possibility that she was about to lose her beloved husband, just as I had lost mine. Call us kindred spirits, but not for the reasons you'd ordinarily choose.