In Poppy Rice's second venture, the smart, outspoken FBI agent's vacation is rudely interrupted by a sinister murder
FBI agent Poppy Rice is, rather unwillingly, taking time off to recuperate from injuries sustained on the job. A few days into her ill-conceived vacation on Block Island with Joe, her sometime-lover and soul mate, she happens upon a corpse dumped in the middle of the road.
The body of the victim, a young girl from a summer camp for overweight teenagers, is painfully contorted, her face frozen in a death scream. There are no visible wounds and the cause of death is a mystery. Although Poppy is no stranger to gruesome scenes, she is so disturbed by the murder that she can't help but defy her orders to rest. Then, just as she begins poking around, another body is found in the same condition as the first; this time, the pathologist reveals another similarity--the eardrums of both girls were ruptured.
Now Poppy must get to the killer before the killer gets to any more girls. With no clue as to the murderer's method or motive, she's going to need all the help she can get. But in the close-knit, tight-lipped Block Island community, secrets are kept--even deadly ones, in Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's She's Not There.
About the Author
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith is the author of several novels, including Love Her Madly, the first of the Poppy Rice Mysteries, which was chosen as a People Page-Turner of the Week. She has lived all her life in Connecticut, except for the two years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith is the author of several novels, including An American Killing, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. She has lived all of her life in Connecticut except for two years in Cameroon where she served as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Read an Excerpt
She's Not There
A Poppy Rice Novel
By Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2003 Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
All rights reserved.
I stood outside on the long wood porch. The morning sun had burned off most of the haze. The day would be warm but not muggy. Maybe the curl I had to my hair, far more fanciful than usual, would calm itself. Long spiraling tendrils sticking to my mouth are not as adorable as Vogue magazine would have people believe.
I could see Joe's cat, Spike. Actually, his fat, furry, marmalade tail, upright in the high grasses a few yards away. He was happy. Hunting. Then eating. He'd eat most of the game he snagged, leaving just the internal organs in a little pile for us right in front of the door. I'd been forewarned, so I always managed to step over the gift rather than in it. Joe has great respect for these acts of generosity so he doesn't mind the cleaning-up part. Joe is attached to this old tomcat, who yowled during our entire two-hour flight from Washington to Block Island. The yowling was nothing compared with the stench of the prodigious amounts of urine, doo-doo (Joe's term), and vomit Spike produced. Joe told me not to worry — there was a guy at the landing strip who would clean his plane.
"Fumigate it too, hopefully."
"Maybe you should add a little Dramamine to his kibble."
Joe put the plane into a steep bank.
I took one of the bikes leaning against the side of the cottage and walked it up the grass-matted path to the unpaved road. I was thinking, It's Bastille Day. This is the kind of thing I've had on my mind during the few days spent away from my FBI chores — It's Bastille Day, how interesting. When I'd admitted such a thing to Joe he said, "Told you so." I'd forgotten one of his many exhortations on the pleasures of his hideaway: "The best part of Block Island is its ability to turn your brain cells to mush," a sensation I was positive I could not experience. And I was surprised it could be true of Joe Barnow, chief field adviser for the ATF, a brilliant and aggressive fellow when it came to serving justice. I never dreamed he'd be right. But there I was, thinking about Bastille Day and not much else.
The sound of Joe's little Cessna replaced the stillness all about me. He was off for a few hours on an errand. I shaded my eyes and looked up. The sun was dazzling. Climbing into the sky, Joe tipped a wing at me. Spike raised his head above the weeds and looked up too. So maybe Joe was tipping his wing to his cat.
I got on the bike and bumped along till the track merged with Coonymus Road, which led toward the old harbor on the other side of the island. The first half mile of Coonymus wasn't paved. The rest of it was, but barely — a network of gaping fissures and a mass of potholes. Block Islanders don't patch the asphalt all that often unless the state of Rhode Island really pushes them. They don't like tourists racing all over the place in cars. Tourists should walk. Joe bragged that you could walk the perimeter of the island in eight hours. That had me worried. I'm a city girl. Hearing that, I'd felt trapped before the plane ever took off from Dulles. But the sea did not trap me. The world seemed expanded, in fact, and I liked the place more and more each day, mushy brain cells and all.
I navigated through and around the obstacle course that was the road, guiding the handlebars with my right hand and holding a mug of coffee in my left. I took a sip whenever there was a smooth stretch. Look, Ma, no hands. Imagine that — me being giddy. At one point I stopped on a rise, one of the highest points on the island: a hundred and fifty feet above sea level. I looked north across the landscape dotted with restored farmhouses and new million-dollar vacation homes. Joe told me the natives had done the restoring and then sold off their surrounding acreage to developers for a ton of money. He said the only difference between Block Island today and Block Island twenty-five years ago — besides the fabulous new "cottages," including his own — was that the islanders no longer drove beatup red Ford pickup trucks with the mufflers hanging off. Now they owned Cadillac Escalade EXTs — "they come with leather upholstery and Bose sound systems" — silver being the most popular color, with gold detailing of their own design and the capacity to haul 8,500 pounds, though there was nothing to haul and no place to haul it. "This used to be an island of fishermen whose wives farmed their own food and raised cows."
"So what do they do now?"
"Whatever they want."
The low coast of Rhode Island lying almost flat on the horizon twelve miles across the Atlantic was blurred. The haze still hung over the mainland. Washington was probably 97 degrees in the shade with a humidity just shy of rain. Ha-ha on them. Block Island was as remarkably beautiful as Joe had promised, hills and vales and young trees, none high or full enough to obscure the view. I would have to ask him where the real trees had gone. A tiny breeze blew one of the tendrils that had escaped my scrunchie out of my mouth. I got the bike moving again.
I passed the Pleasant View, a rickety farmhouse not restored but reconfigured into a B&B. The view from the front was the road to the town transfer station; from the back, "a stand of hoary willows and soggy bogs" was how Joe had put it. Then the poet had smiled at me. "There's always going to be the other side of the tracks, no matter your paradise." I thought, I suppose so.
No one was up and about yet. At this particular B&B, most tourists slept far later than I was able to; Joe said the Pleasant View clientele were heavy drinkers who missed the last ferry and had very little money left over after an evening at the Club Soda. They crashed there, four cots to a room, $25 per cot. "Block Island has many facets," he had said by way of explanation, when we'd driven by the first time and I'd asked, "What's that, a flophouse?" And so I learned that one of Block Island's many facets was a metaphorical railroad track.
Gulls were swarming a hundred yards past the Pleasant View at the corner of Coonymus and Center Street. (Not seagulls. I had learned from Joe, that the sea in seagull is redundant. "There are no gulls in Peoria," he'd said.) A cemetery was at the corner there, an Indian cemetery, mostly little rocks sticking up here and there to mark a body. No headstones in the traditional sense. Someone had put up a small sign asking those passing to remember the souls of these departed Narragansetts, the first inhabitants of Block Island, which they called Manissees.
"Then why is the road by that lighthouse called Mohegan Trail then?"
"Because that's the place where the Manisseeans pushed the invading Mohegans over the bluff and into the sea."
When he showed me the cemetery, Joe said, "The Manisseeans are extinct, of course." Of course. Then, "There are a few slaves buried here too."
"They were leased."
Leased? I'd started to say, but he'd turned my attention to another point of interest. Many facets, indeed.
Now, gazing at the swirl of white birds, it took my mushy brain cells a few moments to recollect that bees swarm, not birds. There were dozens of them, and more were coming in from all directions. They made a god-awful racket, worse as I came closer. They did that kind of thing on the harborside when the fishing boats dumped out leftover bait. Just not this many. The gulls' wings were flapping so rapidly I could hear the beating over their raucous cawing.
They were circling above something lying in the crossroads in front of the cemetery. I slowed just enough to keep the bike from falling over. Where Center Street met Coonymus lay a lumpy mound. It was white, almost as white as the gulls, and it shone in the bright morning light. I couldn't make out what it was in the blinding glare of the sun. I came to a stop, put my feet down, and once again had to shade my eyes with my free hand. Then I got the bike moving again, pedaling closer, scaring off all but a few particularly brazen birds.
It could be a beached seal, I thought, its color washed out by the sun. Joe and I had come across one on a deserted west side beach. But how could a seal wash up here, so far inland? A good mile inland. Obviously, it wasn't a seal. The mush was clearing from my brain; I knew what I was seeing.
The mound was a body. Or was it two bodies, intertwined? I pedaled closer. No, it was not two bodies, it was an overweight adolescent girl, naked, her large limbs wrapped grotesquely around her torso. This was not typical rigor mortis: it was as if every muscle in her body had cramped and spasmed and then stayed spasmed. I stopped the bike. She was not entirely naked. A few shredded edges of her clothes — the waistband of her shorts, the collar of her T-shirt — lifted in the breeze. A very big girl — from the camp, I thought. Joe had mentioned something like that, not too far away. She was not one of the four campers we'd seen yesterday at the harborside, walking down the ferry ramp amid the day-trippers. This was a different girl.
Her long lovely strawberry-blond hair fanned out from her terribly twisted face.
I thought three things in a row: First, she was dead; second, Joe hadn't come upon her; third, the gulls hadn't drawn blood. The first meant there was nothing I could do for her. The second meant she'd been lying there for a very short time. The third, she'd been dead too long for the gulls to make a meal of her. Gulls do not hesitate when a fisherman tosses a fish he isn't interested in, but if he simply drops it at his feet, the gulls are out of luck. By the time he packs up and leaves, the fish is no longer suitable. Put it together and she'd been killed elsewhere — at least an hour ago, probably — and dumped here.
I got off the bike and let it fall, forgetting I had a coffee cup in my hand. It fell, too, and smashed. The gulls screamed and, disappointed to begin with, reversed direction. So did I. I ran back to the B&B and threw open the door. The proprietor was right there, about to go out herself. Joe had dropped in to say hello to her on our first day and to introduce me. She'd given him a big hug and ruffled his hair like he was five years old. Aggie.
Now Aggie smiled at me and said, "Hey, honey, c'mon in. I was just about to go see what the hell was perturbin' the gulls" — she squinted at me — "but first I'm goin' to have to ask what's perturbin' you? You seen a ghost?"
She wore a housedress, the kind I suppose you can buy only in a Wal-Mart. Instead of the top two buttons, a rhinestone brooch was holding the front of the dress together.
I said, "Don't go out there. Just call that cop in town."
"The one from Providence. There's a body out in the crossroads."
She hustled to the window. "I don't see no body."
"Aggie, where's your phone?"
She pressed her face against the glass, craning her neck. "Whose body? Not one of ours, I hope."
"A girl. A girl from the camp."
"A girl? Dear God! What, was she hit by a car? Damnable tourists. I'm always the first to say —"
"I know. Aggie, the phone."
She came away from the window. "Don't you worry now, I'll call over to Tommy's. Forget about that state cop. Hung over at this hour." She was probably right. I'd met him the day before, on duty for the summer season. He was completely played out. Tommy was the island's constable.
Aggie picked up a table phone from behind her counter and set it in front of her. She dialed and waited. She looked up at me. "All bloody, was she?" "No."
Then Aggie spoke into the phone, slowly and clearly, the way a person talks to someone suffering from dementia. "Jake? Now Jake, honey, this is Aggie ... Aggie. You listen to Aggie very carefully. Get Tommy. Tell him to hurry up to my place. Pronto. We got an emergency. Tell Tommy it's an e-mer-gen-cy. So what did Aggie say we got, Jake?" She waited. "That's right. Good boy. An e-mer-gen-cy." She hung up. She said to me, "Jake'll understand enough to get him. Tommy'll come up here by way of the crossroads. Hope he don't bring Jake along." I'd met Jake. He lived with the constable. Jake was particularly deranged. No, Joe had said. Autistic.
The pitch of the gulls' cries had ratcheted up many decibels. Aggie headed toward the window again. "Buncha new gulls are headin' in. I was hopin' none of my guests would wake up for a while. That way I can tell 'em they missed breakfast. Won't sleep through this kind of racket, though." She glanced nervously at the stairs behind her. Again, she asked me, "Hit by a car, was she?"
I started to say no to her question. The body would have been far less gruesome if it had been hit by a car, if there were blood all over her. Blood is normal, a contorted musculature is not. So this time I said, "Yes." It worked. She cringed and pulled away from the view out the window.
My guess was that a drug or combination of drugs had killed the girl. There had been no wounds or any signs of asphyxia, nothing around her neck, no marks. Some drug — or else a mix of several — had devastated her central nervous system violently contracting every muscle. What drug or drugs might cause so tortured a death I had no idea. I depended on my crime lab to answer questions like that. I wished I was one of those people who could honestly say, Where do the kids get this stuff? I already knew the answer. They get it from hard-core addicts who sell drugs to make money to buy drugs for themselves. Where the addicts get the drugs from is always the more imperative question, one Joe Barnow is paid to figure out.
Aggie said, "Goddamned tourists drivin' around here like we was Boston. Least they're killin' their own."
My look stopped her short.
"Sorry, Poppy. Joe would understand. And you bein' his guest and all, I figured ..."
Joe would understand? Block Islanders felt a big affection for him. Joe goes to the island in winter too. Spends long weekends whenever he can. When island kids get sick, he flies them to the nearest mainland hospital, even through blizzards. Well, they may have accepted him, but they were sure wrong to think he'd concur that it was better for a kid from the mainland to die of an overdose than a local kid to die from appendicitis.
Aggie said, "A couple of those girls have been here, partyin' with my guests. I had to call the camp to come get them. Drunk. Young. Say, Poppy, would a cup of tea settle you some?"
I tried to muster a reassuring smile. "No, thanks, Aggie. Another time."
She tilted her head a little and started for the door. "I hear Tommy's truck."
I stepped in front of her. "I'll go. That way, if your guests do wake up, you can try to keep them from going down Coonymus. For now."
"Well, you and Tommy come in then, have some tea. After."
I went out the door. The constable's pickup appeared over the rise, the old red variety. Not a native, I supposed. No land to sell. He stopped just short of the crossroads, rolled slowly forward, and parked, damaging any sort of tire tracks or debris left by whoever dropped the body. He wasn't used to this kind of thing. In one of Joe's many riffs about the glory of Block Island, he'd told me there was no crime. "No skunks, no snakes, no fences, no banks, no lawyers, and, best of all, no crime." The elderly constable had volunteered to enforce town statutes, that's all.
Tommy got out of the truck and stood next to the body. I walked toward him. He put his hands on his knees and bent down to have a closer look. Then he became aware of me. He stood straight again. He said, "You the one found her, miss?"
He squatted all the way down. It wasn't easy for him. He stared at the dead girl. He pushed a strand of hair off her face. Her mouth was open as far as human jaws allowed. She'd died screaming. What drug could do that?
The constable pulled himself back up to his feet. "Thought I should confirm the death. By the look of her, no need bothering to feel for a pulse. She's gone."
"I think you should call the state trooper."
He was staring into my face intently. He knew he should, too. He sighed. "I'll have to stay with the body. I don't have one of those car phones. You drive a standard?"
I could, but more damage to the scene wouldn't help.
"Tommy, why don't I have Aggie call him?"
He squinted. "Trooper don't answer his phone much before noon anyway."
"Isn't there another trooper with him?"
Excerpted from She's Not There by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. Copyright © 2003 Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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