Suspicious Truths

an excerpt

Prologue



He'd said good-bye to her physical self, but couldn't do the same with her dying words. Those continued to live and breathe deep within him, in his heart, his soul, nearly keeping him from being able to feel anything but loss. But loss of what--his mother, the life he'd always known, or his very identity?

A decision loomed. His birthday recently passed, which he spent by himself inside the silent house, had done him no favors. If anything, turning twenty-eight meant he couldn't get away with his own perception that he still had time to figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up. He was a grown-up, and he had to face that truth alone. No more did his mother have dinner waiting for him when he had a rare night shift off from Shiner's Diner; she knew the last thing he'd want to do was cook, so she would have prepared a meal. In a way, it kept alive a piece of his childhood when it was just the two of them against the world, mother and son.

All of that had been shattered; only shards remained, and they cut deep.

He'd yet to make any changes to the small clapboard house. The furniture was the same, framed photographs remained unchanged on the walls, like taunts of happier times; fake times, he now knew. What was different was the closed door to his mother's bedroom, the bare cupboards and fridge, the former ignored, the latter neglected. It was like he was living inside a vacuum of the past, memories swirling about like clouds of dust.

"You are not my son..."

A simple collection of words, as powerful as any he could dare to hear. Devastating words which had left him quieter than usual. Even his co-workers had noticed it down at the diner, though he'd spoken to none of them about why. The decision he had to make was his, and his alone. He wouldn't allow outside interference.

It was late February when he awoke with a strange resolve washing over him. Unlike most nights when he answered the call of four o'clock in the morning, his mind too heavy with thought to enjoy sleep, or to need it. This past night had been different, as he'd slept uninterrupted until the clock had struck 9:00, his eyes opening almost on the dot, no alarm clock necessary. He'd been wrapped in blankets that protected him from the bitter cold that had settled over the Adirondacks and the tiny village of White Pine. He could see crystalline snowflakes frozen to the window of his bedroom. Winter was brutal in Upstate New York, the snow, cold, and wind, lasting well beyond the seasonal turn of the calendar.

To expect a thaw now was just unrealistic.

But much of his life was unreal, or perhaps surreal was more appropriate.

In the month since his mother had passed, he'd done only one thing, sort of on impulse, in terms of the future, and it was that action which came to him again this morning. He tossed back the blankets and placed his bare feet upon the carpet. The house had a chill to it, even though the heat was on. He thought he'd never really shaken the cold that lived within him since that day at the cemetery when he'd laid the gravestone.

Padding into the kitchen, he bypassed the coffee machine and made a beeline for the cork bulletin board his mother had put up so many years ago. Reminders of doctor appointments pinned to it, Noah's work schedule written on a piece of paper, and business cards for plumbers, dentists, home health care agencies. And a recent addition, the one he sought now. ELEANOR REASON, REALTOR.

He'd liked her name.

Because what he needed was someone who could be reasonable, understanding. A name like hers would have to infuse such traits within you at an early age. He'd been unsure the day he'd visited her whether selling the house was the right move. This morning he'd awakened with new resolve, wondering if he'd dreamed about it. He'd seen the ocean in his dream, that much he remembered, the sun reflecting off it with picturesque delight. He'd heard the wind, too, a creaking sound hitting his ear. Turning, he'd seen the "For Sale" sign gently wavering, as though it too were uncertain whether it belonged.

He picked up the phone before he changed his mind.

"Reason Realty," he heard coming from the other end.

"Good morning. I wonder, could I speak with Ms. Reason. This is Noah Sanders."

"Hello, Noah, this is Eleanor. I'm afraid it's too early for my assistant to arrive--she likes to work ten to six--so I'm here. I'm guessing you've made a decision."

"Yes," he said, taking a deep breath before speaking words which would once again alter the direction of his life. "I, uh, I want to sell the house."

She was quiet for a moment before she said, "I knew your mother, from church. This must be difficult for you, and I assure you I'll be as sensitive as I can be. This isn't an easy time for you, Noah. But I think you're making the right decision. And as I said during your first visit, I can help you find a new place, perhaps an apartment to make your own."

That wasn't going to be necessary, he thought but didn't say.

"We'll talk," was his response.

"I'll get the ball rolling," she said. "Why not come by the office later today and we'll sign the necessary paperwork. Do you have a lawyer, too, or shall I recommended one?"

He hadn't even thought about a lawyer. He'd never sold a house before. Maybe he should just keep the place until he knew for sure what he wanted. Except hadn't he been thinking of selling for the past few weeks? Sometimes you needed to make an executive decision. Doing so would give him the chance to move on.

"We'll talk," he said again. Feeling dumb using the same words but all others failed him.

They agreed upon a time, and Noah set the phone down, his world gone quiet again. Like the house itself--his home--knew of his fresh betrayal. He walked from room to room, felt all the memories of his childhood start to fade. Like they were suddenly hiding in the walls and under the staircase. He wondered if he'd had truly happy times here. Rarely did they have company, just some of his friends, whom his mother preferred they play in the backyard.

"It's time," he said, "You need a new family. A complete family."

A streak of golden sun blazed through the window, almost like he'd opened the possibility for tomorrow for a house dredged in an uncertain past. He walked to the front door, wondering how many times he'd crossed this threshold in his lifetime without a thought, how many more he had left. Even though it was frigid outside--evidence of the sun and blue skies all the proof he needed--he opened the door and breathed in air as cold as the arctic. He was used to it; you grow up around such weather, your body gets accustomed to it. In his pajama bottoms and T-shirt, his feet bare, cold attacked him, and he readily accepted it. Punishment for what he'd just done.

Soon, though, he closed the door and began to get ready for the day. He had the night shift at Shiner's, so he didn't have to be in until five. His three o'clock with Eleanor Reason would give him just enough time before he needed to report for work, the pronouncement he'd been forming in his mind soon a reality. This winter had seen a series of impactful days: his birthday, the quiet burial, her death, and of course, the moment that set all of this in motion.

Again, the words taunted him.

"You are not my son."

Forgoing breakfast, Noah returned to his empty bedroom and sat down at his desk. His laptop awaited him, his constant companion these past few weeks. An outlet for the world beyond White Pine, specifically the small town he'd located along New Jersey's coast line. Cane's Inlet, not to mention its featured attraction: Hatcher's Resort. It was a show palace, wooden and wooded and found on its own island, a place for the wealthy and the powerful to stay, to play, to indulge. It was a place that called to Noah, and not for any of those reasons.

It's because of what his mother had said. Of who he was.

A Hatcher.

She'd warned him not to find them. He'd known all along he would, despite her dramatic, last proclamation: that the Hatcher's were evil.

Yet photographs of Hatcher's Island revealed a paradise along the Atlantic Ocean, where the sun danced and the shore called out to beachcombers of all ages, where in the distance on the land that was Cane's Inlet, a Ferris wheel rode high against a blue sky. Like postcards coming to life, or at least, soon would be. The truth awaited him there, but he would heed his mother--it was still difficult to not think of her that way, still--and remain suspicious, reserved.

As he stared at the website for Hatcher's, an idea hit him. Because a phone number stared back at him, daring him to call. He went and retrieved his phone from the kitchen, and before he could hesitate--a trait he was well accustomed to--he had dialed and the connection rang on the other end.

"Good morning, this is Hatcher's reservations. Hannah speaking. How may I help you?"

"Oh, hi. I was inquiring, if perhaps you had a room available."

"For when, sir?"

Good question. Did he wait until he sold the house, or did he just hope for the best? He had limited funds in his bank account, as did his mother. "In the next week or so. Perhaps for just a couple of nights."

"We do have availability. We're not yet at peak season, so rooms are available and at a slightly lesser rate than our summer prices. Are you looking for a deluxe room, a suite? Or maybe one of our bungalows?"

"The smaller the better," Noah said.

There was a pause until the woman said, "Depending on whether you'll staying with us on a weekday or weekend, the rate for a single, non-ocean view, is two hundred and fifty a night, and that's before taxes."

Way beyond his budget. He wouldn't last long enough to find his way around. Forget about learning anything about the reason for his trip.

"Okay, thanks. Let me figure out my dates and I can call back."

"You can always book online, too. Thank you for calling Hatcher's."

He set the phone down and thought about what he was doing. Was he crazy, going off on some fool's errand? Not for the first time did he call into question his mother's dramatic confession and question its validity. But he'd heard the conviction in her voice, felt her desperation. She'd been tortured by her lie, clearly. No way would she say something so awful, such a lie, before meeting her maker. She had been a religious woman. She had needed to make peace with her crime.

Going to Cane's Inlet was his only option. And he was going to need money.

Yes, he had to sell the house. Because it would help finance his trip. His new life.

Even in the off-season, Cane's Inlet was lush, pricey, and exclusive, but nevertheless it now called to him, like a siren rising from the sea. Perhaps the phone call had helped. Hearing a voice from there had confirmed its existence. How odd to think that his past lived there, on a collision course with his future. His mind was made up. Sell the house, quit the job, make the move.

Cane's Inlet awaited him.

It wouldn't be too difficult to say good-bye to White Pine, even though he'd miss the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of early morning snowfalls and crackling fireplaces. Where he was headed, it seemed to represent the opposite end of nature, ocean rather than mountain, sand instead of snow, their only link the sky that hovered high above. Perhaps what he lacked in White Pine he'd find in Cane's Inlet. Truth, perhaps love, but if nothing else, the answers to the mystery of his birth. Uncover the truth about the woman he'd called mother his entire life, a woman by the name of Barbara Sanders, because right now she was just one of the puzzles which confounded him.

What other mysteries would he find when he got there?

What truths awaited him?

Would he find interlocking pieces that would complete the puzzle?

Noah took a deep breath, then closed the computer. A fresh fear hit him. He was venturing into a new world, and the most uncertain aspect of this entire quest of his was the fact that he didn't know a single soul in Cane's Inlet, chief among them himself.









Part One



Coastal Undertow



Chapter One



Devastation was all he felt. Everything else within him, numb.

He knew he'd never belonged here, not at Hatcher's, not in Cane's Inlet and definitely not pretending to play host at the upscale Medusa Lounge. In way over his head, the people around him too forceful, too powerful and easily able to toy with his chance at happiness. It was like the truth had become his enemy, destined to keep him from uncovering what lay beneath hidden tendrils. Maybe he didn't want to know. Maybe he shouldn't know. In a single moment, he'd left betrayal in his wake. Yes, total devastation.

His last word reverberated in his mind, it's cry awful as he was left alone in the stateroom. Both men gone, though seared into his mind like a bad memory. The pain he felt ate at his insides as he ran out of the stateroom, down the corridor, where he darted past the entrance to the lounge, where he could hear the joyous sounds of the party, laughter, celebration, the popping of a fresh bottle of champagne. He had nothing left in which to celebrate.

Again, the word...that name, hit him hard. Nearly toppling him to the ground when he ran off the gangway of the Medusa and onto the dirty footpath. The trees absorbed him, thankfully hid him.

"Demetri..."

He kept running, his suit still a tangled mess. Forced to throw on the ink-stained shirt which had been the catalyst for what had transpired. Buttoning it as he ran, the tie forgotten on the carpet of the stateroom, along with his dreams and probably a few drops of Parker St. John's thick load. He reached the dock, breathing heavily, and thankfully saw the schooner, and in terms of people, only Willy. He wouldn't be able to face anyone else.

"What are you doing here? Ain't it your big night?"

Noah looked up. The glow from the full moon must have caught his tear-streaked face.

"Just take me back to the mainland," Noah pleaded.

Willy silently welcomed him with a simple hand gesture.

Once on board the schooner, Noah tried his best to keep from gazing back, but as they sailed toward the peninsula, the billowing sails and towering masts of the Medusa peeked up over the trees, almost as if they were playing with him. Shooting him a reminder of what an outsider he was. He wiped a series of tears from reddened eyes. Hatcher's Island was in his rearview mirror. So was the life he'd attempted to forge here. Noah was done. Finished.

Cane's Inlet would fade into view, too. All that it represented would fade from his life.

He'd lost everything.

As he crouched near the stern of the boat, it was like he was willing himself to the shore faster, Willy left him alone with his thoughts. The old sailor knew when a man didn't want to talk. What had happened during the last hour had seemed unreal, its events unfolding like in a movie, the pivotal scene down in cinematic slow motion. He was reliving it, vividly and relentlessly.

Parker's threat, his manipulation. His undressing before him, exposing his muscular, thickly furred body, his powerful erection and asking, no--demanding--that if Noah desired to keep him from revealing to the Hatchers what he'd discovered, Noah had to agree to have sex with him. Parker was sexy, sure, and Noah had always found himself jealous of the man's easy confidence. Slightly attracted to the idea that Parker wanted him.

Noah had been weak, and afraid. Caught between a rock and a hard cock.

He'd given in, had dropped to his knees. Taken the meat into his mouth.

Then just as Parker's big cock was climaxing all over him, that's when Demetri had arrived, finding them together. And this only hours after the two of them had declared their love for each other. What possible explanation could Noah have given? Not that Demetri remained for a half-assed explanation. He had run, disappeared. Would he have gone back to the party? Certainly, he hadn't caught the boat, because Willy wouldn't have had time enough to go and return given the time passed between then and now. Not even fifteen minutes.

Parker too had excused himself moments after Demetri had run off, his tone as cold as ever. His attitude self-satisfied. "Clean yourself up. I expect you back at your post."

Fuck him was Noah's thought as the boat reached the pier on the eastern edge of Cane's Inlet. Willy was barely given the time to secure his boat before Noah was leaping off, running again. He'd have to offer his apologies later, but then again, that probably wouldn't happen. It couldn't happen.

He'd decided. Noah Sanders was leaving Cane's Inlet, and he was leaving this minute. His car was parked in the lot, and thankfully the keys were secure in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He didn't need any other thing, just keys, a car, and an open road. Zander's Bridge awaited him, and then he'd be gone, never to be heard from again. All he'd sought, all he'd learned, none of it mattered anymore. His mind was a jumble of thoughts, his heart a mixture of emotions. His soul empty of everything but embarrassment.

He found his car in the crowded lot; so many guests still out at the Medusa had left their vehicles here. And why not, the night was young still, not even ten o'clock. Not one to believe in superstitions, Noah couldn't help but think the full moon high in the black sky had something to do with the twist of events tonight. Or maybe it was fate finally intervening, telling him he'd been foolish to think he could outsmart the everyone. Find out his truth with most of the residents unaware of his reason for coming to town.

He'd trusted the Canes. And then gone and betrayed them. Or at least, one of them.

Trying his best to push the image of Demetri's wounded expression from his mind, he got behind the wheel of his car, needing to focus. He gunned the engine, at last ready to disappear into the ether, just as his mother...no, not his mother, only the woman he'd thought for forever had been his mother, but really was just a woman who had stolen him. Could he do as she had done? Never to be heard from again. Was that the legacy he wanted for himself? To repeat the mistakes of the past, especially as he remained unaware of why it had all happened in the first place. Again, he fought against bitter tears, and he wiped them away with his hands, like wipers on a windshield.

"Shit," he said aloud, the sound of his voice loud inside the confines of his car.

He couldn't just run. He needed something vital--his laptop, back inside his room at the Ocean's Breeze. No way could he leave that, because there was too much on it, website searches and notes about whom he talked to, what he'd learned, a full write-up of his luncheon with Stefan those couple of weeks ago. While it was password protected, Noah had little doubt someone would be able to get beyond his firewall, and then the Hatchers would learn everything.

Just run in, he told himself, pack his bags quickly, throw them in the car. And then he'd be gone. Which he tried to do, but after pulling into the lot and parking right up against the stairs that led to the porch, he noticed the Ocean's Breeze was dark; not even a porch light lit, much less one kept on in the lobby. Few people were staying here now, the season's residents not yet in town. Which is why he'd been able to secure his room for cheap. But he'd never seen the old Victorian so black; it was almost like no one was there, no one even on duty.

He took the stairs, approached the front door. He tried the door and found it locked.

Where was Renny? Wasn't he always on duty when Cilla was out?

Then he remembered what Cilla and Demetri had told him earlier tonight. Something had been off about Renny, he'd been upset and began throwing things. He'd calmed down, they'd said, but perhaps he'd experienced a relapse after they'd left. Noah peered through the small windows on the front door but again, all he saw was darkness. Should he knock? Or maybe call? Then he remembered yet another detail about Renny's meltdown--he'd thrown a vase and in turn had broken a window. Demetri had needed to patch it up, making them late for the gala.

Moving along the darkened porch, his shadow barely visible from the moon's glimmering light, Noah located the broken window. All the glass had been cleared out, the window secured by cardboard and tape around its perimeter. An idea formed in his mind, one he tried to dismiss. He couldn't do such a thing as break-in. Could he? Turning his head, looking, listening, for signs of anyone lurking, he wiped sweaty palms on his suit pants, then began the process of removing strips of tape from the edges. Seemed Demetri had been thorough, taping the window from both inside and outside. Soon, though, the cardboard came free, leaving a gaping hole that gave Noah access to the lobby of the Ocean Breeze.

This was the moment of truth. Was this him breaking the law? Gaining illegal entry?

Except he was a legitimate tenant, he did pay rent on his room. He just didn't have a key to the front door, had never needed one. Cilla or Renny had always been there, the door never locked. Again, a cursory look around him revealed no one watching him. So, he crouched down and stepped over the sill, seconds later finding himself inside the Ocean Breeze. As he made his way across the floor, stealth accompanying him, he listened for any sounds of life. But the place was deserted, the office door closed, no light coming from within. He reached around the check-in desk and retrieved his room key from the wooden slots. Nothing to stop him now.

Still, he felt he had to act fast. He went upstairs, dreading their creaking noise. But he made it to his room undetected and let himself in. He nearly turned the lamp on, a natural instinct. Except he had to think differently now, he was a cat burglar set upon stealing his own possessions. With his eyes adjusted to the darkness, seeing was surprisingly easy. He went over to his desk and took hold of his laptop, placing it under his arm. As he turned, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and saw what a mess he looked. Tear streaked cheeks, the black ink stain on his shirt, buttons uneven. With his attempt to run from Cane's Inlet, anywhere he went he'd no doubt receive strange glances.

He made the decision right then to change. Off went the suit and he quickly donned a pair of comfortable jeans and casual shirt, his leather jacket the last piece. The rest of his clothes would just be forgotten. Like he hoped he was, once the residents here knew he was gone for good. It was his only option. Before leaving the room, he took one last look, at where he'd lived these past few months, his eyes landing on the discarded suit on the bed. He thought about what might have been. A new life, a glamorous one. So much potential. All of it destroyed.

Noah Sanders bid farewell to the Ocean Breeze, his room and the stairs, slipping out again through the window. Still not seeing a soul. Was everyone in town at the Medusa opening? And where had Renny gone running off too? None of this was Noah's concern anymore, and so, with the laptop comfortably under his arm, he made his way back toward his car.

That's when he heard the blaring of an alarm. Fear struck him as he stared back at the grand house he'd called home, wondering if he'd tripped a wire. But no, the sound wasn't coming from here, but certainly nearby. He thought of the other times he'd heard sirens in Cane's Inlet, both instances revealing the bodies of two slain women, their necks sliced. The killer still not caught to this day. My God, he thought, could there be another victim?

Yet the sound was different. Not police, not an ambulance. More like a security alarm.

Whatever the type, this was none of his business.

Noah dashed to his car, fearing discovery, as though the alarm was meant to alert the cops about his escape. He turned out of the parking lot, taking the side streets instead of the access road to the shore. He needed to get to the downtown area and ultimately find his way over Zander's Bridge. As he drove past the Little Liffey, an establishment he'd miss, he thought he detected a shadow running on the sidewalk, a lone figure caught ever-so briefly under a streetlight before becoming absorbed in the black night. Noah then realized where the person--man or woman. he couldn't be sure--had come from, the blaring alarm that much closer.

He noticed which building's alarm had been activated.

"The Historical Society," he said aloud.

For some reason, he pulled to the curb. He shouldn't have, but he did. Cane's Inlet still had a pull on him, most notably its connection to the long-ago past. He jumped out of the car, dashing up the pathway to the porch. Unlike the Ocean's Breeze, not only was there a light on beside the door, but the front door was wide open., shards of wood indicating a break-in. The alarm was deafening. Noah wondered if there was a switch he could find to shut it off. Then he would anonymously call 911 before driving off again.

As he entered the museum, he realized he dare not touch anything. This was a crime scene. All he wanted was to turn the alarm off. But his efforts in the dark proved fruitless, the piercing sound penetrating his ears, seemingly growing louder with each step he took. A stream of light caught his attention, and so he moved further into the room, finding himself drawn to the Medusa Room. The door was ajar, the source of the light found inside. Another couple steps and he eased open the door, finding before him a mess of destruction. Shelves had been torn down, books lay on the floor, broken picture frames whose shards of glass had fallen to the dark carpet. But what he most noticed was he'd found the source of the alarm, the sound at his loudest inside this room.

The famed Star Diamond case had been smashed, no doubt such action tripping the alarm.

Noah breathed deeply, shock consuming him, as he realized that the diamond was gone.

"Who would have stolen it, and on a night like this?"

There was no answer, not from him, nor from the intruder he suddenly heard behind him. The footsteps startled him. He tried to spin around, but the alarm had aided in the person's stealth-like approach. So, Noah never saw what happened, he only felt it.

A quick, hard blow to his head. And then came harsh darkness. He never heard the thud of his body crumpling to the hard floor. Nor saw the shattered bits of glass that rained down around him.

****