Sinister Motives

an excerpt

Prologue



Snow was in the forecast in the town called White Pine, at least six inches to fall in the Adirondacks over the next couple hours. For now, though, only the threat of it hovered, gray, ominous clouds sinking ever closer to the cold ground.

Such weather wasn't unusual, given that it was February.

The surrounding valley and jagged hills were already coated in a wintry mix of ice and snow, had been since before the holidays. Probably would remain this way into late March, maybe even April. Winter came to these northern parts early, and it left late.

That didn't stop Noah Sanders from attending a burial, even though it was only ceremonial in nature. The frozen ground was too hard to dig, so the remains of his only relative, the recently departed Barbara Sanders, remained in the careful care of Farrow & Son Funeral Home until the spring thaw, when she would be quietly interred. The details of how and when Noah didn't want to know. Today marked his final goodbye, and in so doing, what he'd planned this past week was having her gravestone placed atop the plot he'd bought, a small granite block that would serve as her marker until she could finally join it in perpetual rest.

He wished he too could be at rest, though not eternally. Just enough to bring a fresh calm to his upturned life.

A week had passed since his mother had died, and he'd done very little but think about her final words to him. On her literal deathbed, confessing to an awful truth, if indeed what she spoke of could be defined by that word. There was no proof beyond what she'd spoken. But wasn't that what final confessions were about, unleashing the last secrets of a life before death claimed you? A cleansing for them, dirtying his life in the process.

"You wouldn't have lied, that's not possible, it wouldn't make sense," he said aloud. No one was around to hear him.

In fact, the cemetery was devoid of all life. Even the bells of St. Mary's were silent, as if to acknowledge the solemn moment between son and mother. If that, indeed, was what they were. Of course, she had raised him. He'd shared stories from school, told her about the home run he'd hit in baseball practice, embarrassed to tell her about the strikeout he'd suffered during the actual game, his life always a balance of telling her the good while avoiding the bad. He'd had a happy childhood, a more difficult segue into adulthood. While she had told him her secret, he hadn't done the same.

"Mom, I'm gay." He said this aloud, too, at last.

Words he'd never said to her. She must have known. Mothers always do.

Aside from those high school prom dates, he'd never brought home a girlfriend. Not even in college, which he'd dropped out after two semesters, nor beyond to when he'd landed the line-cook job at Shiner's Diner, had there ever been a girl. Noah secretly experimented with other men. He'd enjoyed it, and while he'd never pursued any sort of relationship, there was no denying his attraction to the same sex. He wasn't ready to admit it, not to her, barely to himself.

There were so many things he wasn't ready for.

Not her death, not this burial. Not being alone in the world.

He had no siblings, no father either. And now if what she'd told him were true, no mother either.

At least, not the one he'd always known.

Bundled against the cold wind as it whipped through the cemetery, Noah kneeled in the snow, his gloved fingers grazing the engraved letters on the stone. He traced her name, Barbara Sanders, and for a brief second doubted whether that had been her name. Maiden or married, did it matter? If she'd truly done as she'd claimed, it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that she had changed her identity. She'd done as much to him.

"I can only imagine you had a good reason for doing what you did," he said.

There was no response. She wasn't there in body, much less in spirit.

Between work and making the arrangements for her funeral, Noah had barely had time to think about the ramifications of what she'd revealed. With only a few friends in town, he'd skipped a formal funeral, instead having her remembered at a Sunday mass. Those friends had attended, as had a doctor and two nurses who had tried to ease her pain while the cancer ate away at her; eventually, inevitably, claiming her. The congregation had sung songs she'd loved, like "Be Not Afraid," "Let There Be Peace on Earth," and while the majesty had soared toward the stain-glass ceiling of the church, Noah had been struck by those ironic lyrics. He was afraid, and he was far from at peace.

Thinking of her name brought thoughts of another name, shaking him worse than the cold.

Hatcher.

A family, unbeknownst to him a week ago, now dominating his thoughts. Because Barbara Sanders had claimed he belonged to them, whoever they were. She had stolen Noah as an infant, depriving them of their newborn son. Why? She'd spoken of the Hatchers in a fearful tone--calling them evil. Wasn't stealing a baby the same, no matter the justification?

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said, again, aloud, as though his words held more impact that way.

Again, no answer was forthcoming, not even one he could feel in his heart. His mother was silent, and she would remain that way for eternity. There was no more pain, not for her, for which he was thankful, but there were no more answers either, and that's where his frustration threatened to consume him. He told himself he couldn't remain at her grave for much longer. The cold was penetrating beneath his parka. He felt the first fall of flakes. He looked up to see a darkened sky. The forecast had been accurate. Might even be more than six inches on the way.

Might be a blizzard.

He had a decision to make, one for himself, because who else was there anymore? He had to find a level of serenity. One that would allow him to sleep through the night. Too many of them these last few days had found him staring out the window as the clock showed four in the morning. Restless, walking throughout the rooms of the house, feeling her presence everywhere, he asked himself: Did he just continue his life as expected, return to his job at Shiner's Diner tomorrow, or did he take some time off? And what about the house? Should he sell it, or continue to live there?

Or did he decide to do something drastic. Pursue the mystery of his real self?

Noah Sanders found he couldn't move, not right now. His mother's grave held him in place, as though a hand was reaching up from the grave, grabbing at his pant leg. Clinging to him, or dragging him down to her world. Which was where? She'd led a gentle life, gone to church every week, a dedicated house cleaner, serving others. Not a greedy bone in her body, she was simply good at her job. She'd cared for him. She'd raised him.

"I thank you for that," he said. "Mom, I don't understand what you've left me with. Why you waited until the end to tell me. You've left me with so much to think about. Do I want to know the truth of why you took me from what should have been my destined life? What would have been so bad had I remained with my birth family?"

He wasn't sure he could even speak their name aloud.

"But there's nothing more you can do. It's all on me. You've left me alone, but also given me a chance to find another family. Why else would you have told me, if you didn't expect me to go in search of them? What else could have been your motive?"

The snow began to fall in earnest now, thick flakes coating the ground quickly.

Noah took a step back, the first of many he would take in distancing himself from the woman known to him as Barbara Sanders. Another step, and another, but he couldn't yet turn his back on her. Not until he nearly tripped over another grave stone. He stumbled, caught himself by grabbing the slippery top of it. His eyes fell upon the name.

It was an ironic, but perhaps appropriate marker.

Edward Miller. A man who had died twenty-seven years ago, and to whom his mother had been betrothed. For his entire life, he'd heard the story of the man's tragic death, an expert hiker who had taken an unfortunate spill while climbing a peak here in the mighty Adirondacks. "Eddie" fell to his death, tragically leaving behind a pregnant fiancé. All of that was called into question now. Noah couldn't even say a word to him now.

If Barbara Sanders hadn't been his mother, and he'd called her that his entire life, then no way was this man lying in the ground his biological father. He was nothing but a sham memory, a myth born from a lie. Had the two of them even known each other, or had his mother just taken advantage of the man's early demise to explain away a sudden baby? Nothing made sense.

Noah felt his chest constrict, his breath billowing out into the cold.

He finally made his exit from St. Mary's cemetery, passing through the stone gates like a re-entry into the world of the living. Except his entire self was numb. Quietly, not even aware of his actions, he returned to his car, and then to the only home he'd ever known. He tossed off his wool coat, the snowy remnants melting on the floor of the warm house. He changed out of his suit into casual jeans and blue sweater, grabbed a beer from the fridge. Enjoyed its bitter taste. Weird how the cold brew calmed the chill inside him.

Noah then padded into his bedroom, plopped down onto the bed.

It was over, he thought, exhaustion settling over him. Except he knew that was a lie, one he couldn't readily admit. Because it wasn't over, but only just the beginning. A quest had been thrust upon him. His desire to know the truth. Again, his mind went back to that one word that haunted him-- motive. What had made Barbara Sanders do what she'd done twenty-seven years ago, and then recently, seven days ago? Absconding with him, then fessing up while she still had the chance, a last breath.

"You're not my son," she'd said.

His computer was on his bedside table, and he reached for it. He'd put off until now doing any research on what she'd told him. Where did he start? What keywords would help Google spit out what he wanted to know?

Stolen baby?

Too vague.

Missing son?

Ambiguous, at best.

No, what he needed was to combine a detail about his mother along with the name Hatcher.

He recalled the details of her life, but what first came to him was their life together here in White Pine. He needed to reach back further, to before Noah had been born. She'd always been evasive about her childhood, telling him there was no sense in revisiting it. She'd been an only child, her parents deceased. No cousins either. Thinking about it now, it was like Barbara was deliberately isolating the two of them from the world, a place like White Pine more than ideal to accomplish that. Not much happened here. Unlike...he felt as though the proverbial light bulb had gone off above him. A memory became illuminated.

She'd once spoken of a life on the Shore. She enjoyed the ocean, the beach. She spoke of riding a Ferris wheel and envisioning the world beyond her small town. Strange that she'd come to a town encased by mountains, when it was the water which called to her.

His fingers were suddenly typing furiously.

Shore. Ferris wheel. Hatcher. Keywords that could be the clues to the truth.

He held his breath as the browser buffered, seeking out his information.

A moment later a series of web options were offered to him. But it was the first one which hit pay dirt. Like the universe was suddenly deciding to be on side.

Hatcher's Resort, Cane's Inlet, New Jersey.

A website, photographs, a glimpse into what might be. An existence being played without him, as though he'd never been born.

His heart suddenly beat faster, his palms wet with sweat. He had a clue, a lead. A piece of that might connect him with his unknown past. But what, he wondered, unsettled him more. Did he have a future? How strange this would all be happening now.

Tomorrow would be his birthday. A new year never felt so uncertain.









Part One



Coastal Waves



Chapter One



Morning sunshine had broken through early clouds, a stark contrast given the ominous sirens that filled the air. A fresh day was brewing, its tone set by an unknown emergency. But in truth, neither weather nor crime could steal Noah Sanders' focus, not when faced with the man before him. It all seemed unreal. Not just his presence, but his very name, echoing like a hollow drum inside him. Stefan Hatcher. Had his mother gotten the name wrong? Read the birth certificate too quickly? Was he staring at himself, or specifically, at who he was supposed to have been?

"I...I shouldn't have come. Excuse me, I'll just leave..."

The man struggled to speak, his motions childlike. "But who are you? Why are you here?"

"I'm not sure." The answer applied to both questions asked.

"Are you my friend?"

"Your friend?"

"I don't have any, not really. Would you be like to be mine?"

They were odd words coming from a grown man, except they were spoken with such an innocent, waiflike voice, Noah couldn't be assured of the man's age. Hard to tell, in his wheelchair, dressed in pajamas and burgundy robe, his face pale, devoid of any facial stubble. He could have been a teenager, a pre-teen, or the same age as Noah. Like the man was trapped in his own nexus, his age meaningless. Perhaps, so too, his life.

And now this man was asking him, a stranger, to be his friend.

How should he escape this situation? Why had he even come here? On impulsive, leaving Demetri under the boardwalk confused by his actions. Rushing off as he had, he knew how strange his behavior had been, especially after the blissful night of passion the two of them had shared. A connection made, one so easily broken. Was that what was happening here?

"You never said your name," Stefan said. "Don't you want to be my friend?"

Noah didn't respond. Instead, he gazed about the front entrance and half-expected that their exchange would be interrupted by the arrival of Ginette, or Emerson, perhaps both. Each of them wondering why their new employee was coming to their house unannounced so early on a Sunday morning. He realized he had no legitimate excuse for being here. So far he was free from discovery. It was only himself, and Stefan.

"Is anyone else home?" Noah asked.

"Yes. My parents. They sleep in on Sundays. It's early. Why are you here?"

"I made a mistake, I think I got the wrong address," Noah said, hoping he sound believable.

"No you didn't. You came to see me," Stefan said.

He spoke with such authority. He might be physically incapacitated, but his mind wasn't.

"My name is Noah. But can my visit be a secret?"

This made Stefan smile. "I like that. No one will know. Will you visit me again?"

"If you like," Noah said. "But won't your parents know?"

"You seem nice. I don't have any friends. Except Mr. Taustine."

That was an unusual name. Was it made up? Imaginary? "Who is that?"

"He takes care of me because I need help. Getting dressed, bathing, eating, every day stuff. He works for my family. My parents are always busy. Why have I never seen you before?"

Instead of answering, he asked his own. "Where is Mr. Taustine now?"

"He's sleeping, too. Sometimes I wake up early. The light in my room wakes me up. It's never off. I like it on."

That light. The one he could see from his room no matter the hour; always lit. He'd been distracted by its glow most nights while sitting on his deck at the Ocean's Breeze, where he had an ideal view of the Hatcher mansion. At least he had confirmation about the light. One mystery was solved. So many others opened. He wished he could make a quick exit, fearing discovery.

"Stefan," he said, the name unfamiliar on his lips. Especially since his mother had said the boy's name was Stephen. That his name was Stephen.

"Stefan, I have to leave now. But I'll come back. Would that be okay?"

He smiled, nodded. "I would like that. But don't tell them," he said, his eyes darting toward the interior of the house.

"Mr. Taustine?"

He shook his head vehemently. "Parents. They keep me sheltered. I can do things."

"I see that. You're very capable."

Then he winked. "And smart. Smarter than them. Mr. Taustine will help us. He will come see you to make a plan."

A plan. That sounded so secretive. Almost wrong. "I don't know about that. I'll just...come back."

"He'll arrange it. Where do you live?"

"The Ocean's Breeze," Noah said, "for now. That might change."

"I like you, Noah. You are nice to me."

Noah felt his heart ache. He was confused by this entire exchange, but he was inspired too by this man's inner spirit. He found himself bending down at the door's entrance, coming face to face with Stefan, hoping he wasn't making the man feel uncomfortable, or worse, threatened.

"I'd like to talk to you, Stefan. I'd like to know about your life."

"I'll tell Mr. Taustine. You'll come back. He'll visit you."

Just then Stefan's arms reached out, and Noah did the same. Four hands newly entwined, a connection established. A friendship based on secrecy. Their eyes locked on each other, Noah staring into irises that held so much emotion. Need, loss, loneliness. Were those mirrors of what lived in his eyes? He smiled, received one in return. He felt the warmth spread throughout his body from the contact he'd made with this man. This man who might have been him. He, who probably would have been him. It was all too much to absorb. As always, too many questions and not enough answers. The two men held hands for another minute, neither saying a word. A sound from inside the house broke them from their private moment.

"Stefan, where are you? Why am I feeling a draft?"

Noah recognized the voice. It was Ginette Hatcher's. The last person he wanted to discover him. The panic must have been evident in Noah's eyes.

"Go, now, please," Stefan said, pushing the toggle on the arm of his wheelchair. He spun around, it's whir echoing in the high-ceilinged foyer. "Come back, at the right time. Mr. Taustine will help. You and me, we can be secret friends."

For the past month, Noah had sought information, even as he'd avoided telling anyone his true motive for moving to Cane's Inlet. Trying to unearth truth on the sly and not tip his hand. But he knew he'd eventually need an insider if he was going to discover what happened when he was born, and now he'd found an ally, and an unlikely one at that. An insider within the family in question, one who might provide the clue to what had happened twenty-eight years ago at Cane's Medical Center. A truth that no one wished to revisit: not Nurse Cassie, not Clara Montgomery, certainly not Donna Eldreth, who had been permanently silenced. Noah then thought back to that siren he'd heard when first arriving at the Hatcher mansion.

What was the emergency vehicle responding to?

That wasn't Noah's immediate concern. Nor was Stefan Hatcher. His thoughts returned to Demetri.

Noah said goodbye to Stefan, promising to return. The eagerness written on the man's face only fueled Noah into wanting to come back, and soon. So much of this mystery could be addressed if he asked the right questions. Assuming, of course, Stefan knew anything himself. But that would all have to wait. Noah left the Hatcher mansion, backtracking down the wooden staircase pitched along the steep, rocky bluff. The rising sun nearly blinded him as he made his way back down to the beach. He wondered if Demetri was still where he'd left him. He felt awful for his abrupt departure, and while he walked back along the sand to the boardwalk, he tried to come up with a plausible explanation. Nothing he came up with would do the trick.

Not even the truth. Especially the truth.

But it turned out, he'd worried over nothing.

He closed in on Atlantic Amusements and the spot where he and Demetri had jumped off the boardwalk only hours ago, where he'd been surprised by a pre-arranged picnic directly beneath it. A premeditated seduction that Noah had been more than willing to give himself to. Champagne and fruit had been their first course, energetic love-making their delicious entrée. Stolen kisses a sweet dessert. What remained now was just empty calories. There was no more blanket, no wicker basket. No imprints of their entwined bodies in the sand, not even their footprints. He didn't even see the cork from the champagne bottle that Demetri had let fly. And worst of all, there was no sign of the man himself. Demetri was gone.

Like the waves had claimed their night, washed it out to sea, their memories now sandy entrails.

* * * *

The first thing he did was call Demetri but it went straight to voicemail without ringing. He didn't want to leave a message--what would he say?--and contemplated sending a text. But how could he explain away ditching him so unexpectedly in shorthand? OMG and LOL just wouldn't work. He doubted an emoji existed. Best course of action would be coming face-to-face, but given that this was a Sunday morning Noah knew his apology would have to wait. Demetri would be busy with brunch over at the Shore Thing. Noah knew from experience. Had it only been a week since Noah had been manning the grill while Demetri lingered, falsely, in jail? Him feeding the hungry residents of Cane's Inlet. Food was what they paid for, local gossip what they'd come for. All of them satiated on both fronts given recent events in town.

It was nine o'clock when Noah arrived back at the Ocean's Breeze, entering the lobby and just seeking the security of his room. Wanting privacy, and well-earned sleep.

That wasn't going to happen, at least not right away. A large presence, more shadow than human, was dusting table tops in the dimly lit common room. She turned at the sound of the front door opening.

"Well, look what the cat dragged in."

"Morning, Cilla," Noah said.

Cilla Cane, dressed in another of her outrageous multicolored housecoats, her graying hair unkempt and wild, waddled over behind the desk to grab his key from within one of the wooden slots. She dangled it in front of him, not quite ready to hand it over. "I assume you're wanting this. It's gone unused all night."

Noah had remained strong in not telling Cilla much, despite her continual probing. "And that's your business why?" he asked.

"Ooh, you're a testy one this morning. You'd think a night out would ease your tension."

"I'm not the tense one, Cilla."

She frowned at him. "I thought you'd be more fun, Noah Sanders."

"You mean you thought I'd tell you everything about me. Fun for you, not for me."

"We could be friends."

His second offer this morning. "You made your position quite clear the other night. Pick you, or the Hatchers."

She dropped the key onto the counter purposely, the clack filling the silence between them. He reached over and took hold of it. He wasn't going to take the bait. Her chilliness aside, he was still annoyed that she'd tried to keep him and Demetri apart with a lie, and as evidenced by last night, clearly her efforts had gone for naught. A shame, as her attempt at keeping them apart wasn't based on any homophobia; by all accounts she appeared to be gay friendly. Her frustration was based on the fact Noah wasn't being forthcoming with his reason for moving to Cane's Inlet. She also didn't like that he was going to work for the Hatchers. Sworn enemies of the Cane family.

Noah started off when she said, "Have a good day."

"Thanks. Last night was a good one, today shows some promise."

He reached the stairs, but after that tease he knew she wasn't done with him. He was right.

"When do you start?"

He turned around. "At Hatchers?"

"Yes."

"Tomorrow. First day, orientation. We're a couple weeks away from the grand opening of the new club."

"The Medusa Lounge," she said, disdain in her voice. "Noah, be careful."

"I promise, I won't stare directly into her face. No creature is turning me to stone. Not even you." He tossed a smile her way. "Though you might want to run a comb through that, might be snakes in there after all."

Her laugh followed him up the two flights of stairs, where he was finally able to shut the door--and the world--behind him. Turning the lock was like being granted an order of protection. He'd gained a lot of information in the past twenty-four hours, and it was only now--alone, closed off, devoid of obligation until he reported for work--that he could take stock of where his life had taken him. A month-plus into his stay in Cane's Inlet had slipped by and he felt he'd managed only to deepen the mystery of his past.

Part of that was his fault. Afraid to tell the truth to anyone, Demetri included.

Part of it was because of Cane's Inlet itself. It liked its secrets. It held tight to them, burying them beneath the sand.

Noah knew he had a lot to uncover about what might have happened years ago, but would he be able to solve this on his own? Dare he confide in someone, which would mean trusting someone. And was that someone to be found in the person of Stefan Hatcher? As Noah undressed and readied the shower, he thought back to his encounter with the disabled man. Clearly intelligent, but socially what the experts called "on the spectrum," he feared it rendered Stefan an unlikely and unreliable resource. There was no reason for Stefan to suspect that he was anyone but whom his parents always claimed him to be. Theirs. A Hatcher.

But was he supposed to be Noah, and thus, Noah supposed to be him?

It was all too much to handle in this moment, and so he welcomed the warm spray of the shower. Cleaning not just his body of last night's sex and sand, but washing his mind of all that had happened. As he soaped his tired body, he felt his cock hardening. Images flashed before him; how could they not? Demetri ripping off his clothes, his hot, hairy, muscular body revealed before him, hovering above him. The tender way he'd kissed him. The gentle penetration. The explosive way he'd thrust in him, come inside him. His heat and his heart, his motion and his passion. It had been all consuming then, the memory almost as intense. Noah exhaled at the thought of when they might meet again.

As tendrils of soap were swallowed by the drain, so were his thoughts on sex. Because not even a hot night of passion could erase the doubts that swirled inside him. Wasn't Demetri a mere distraction to his true purpose? Noah was so confused by this burgeoning relationship, wondering if Demetri's attraction to him was just a ruse. A backdoor entrance, so to speak, for Cilla to learn Noah's reason for being in town. He dismissed it as paranoia. You could fake certain things, kisses not among them.

Noah found his thoughts drifting away from Demetri and back to Stefan Hatcher.

He had so much to learn about Stefan, about the circumstances surrounding his birth, his subsequent years. Had he always been trapped in that wheelchair, or had he become victim to some terrible accident later? He'd suggested they meet again, secretly, and Noah had agreed to it. The question was how to arrange their meeting without Ginette or Emerson getting wind of it? Who was this mysterious caretaker, Mr. Taustine? More questions, he realized.

He stepped out of the shower, water dripping off his body. He wrapped a towel around his waist. Considered dropping to the bed to take a nap. It seemed too early in the day for that, knowing it would throw off his biorhythms. Besides, he was wired from all that was eating at him. Threatening to devour him. What he wondered, and not for the first time, was-- what's next?

Last week he'd attempted to play investigator, if only to help the falsely accused Demetri. Not sure how successful he'd been in that regard, but he knew now he needed to step up his probing of his past for his own peace of mind. And as much as he could dig into Hatcher history, he realized his plan of attack might be completely off. Was he looking at the wrong angle? What he should have been doing was investigating his own mother. Not Ginette Hatcher, but Barbara Sanders. The crux of his past lay in hers--why she had done what she claimed. Who were these Hatchers to her to cause her to do something so drastic, so criminal, as to steal their baby? But that only opened another Pandora's Box. She hadn't just stolen a baby; she'd replaced one with another. Could she have abandoned her own child? It was a chilling thought.

He stared at himself in the mirror. The towel lost its hold, revealing his full naked self.

Like the world was exposing him. Was he a fraud? A victim? A co-conspirator?

With renewed determination, Noah walked over to the dresser, grabbed a pair of fresh jeans and a light sweater. He wasn't sure if by putting them on it was an attempt to hide all he feared, or a call to action. But he knew he couldn't continue this backdoor approach to his problem. He knew this morning had provided him the game-changer he needed. Meeting Stefan had altered his universe, and he knew he needed help from someone. It was a matter of trust, and so far, convincing him of who qualified was difficult.

And knowing that tomorrow he'd begin work and that the job might consume him, he knew this day was when he needed to make some headway. He had to tell someone what was going on. So, with one last glance at himself in the mirror, he pronounced himself decent enough for public consumption. Tired as he was, he found himself newly energized. He grabbed his key and headed back down to the stairs. Except he stopped midway down, because Cilla had company. And Noah didn't like who it was. He gave a listen to what Chief Roy Hatcher was saying.

"You say he's in his room? What time did he get back?"

"An hour ago, if that long," she was saying. "Why?"

"If I wanted you to know, I'd have already told you. You'll find out soon enough."

"I must be losing my touch. People used to tell me everything."

"People must have learned it only brought them trouble."

Cilla was unusually silent after the biting remark. Noah sensed his words had wounded her. A truth she didn't like. Still, he was more concerned with the fact the two of them had been talking about him. Who else could it have been? Then Noah recalled the sirens he'd heard earlier when he'd been up on Hatcher's Bluff encountering Stefan. Had there been an emergency, or something worse? If the latter, then why the need for sirens? But Noah remembered the night Chief Hatcher had come for Demetri, guns glazing, cop cars with sirens, swirling red lights, the full court press. Perhaps he liked the drama. His own power play, or proof to the public that he understood urgency? Otherwise, the sirens simply tipped his hand.

"So, I'm guessing it's bad news," he heard Cilla comment. "I mean, cops don't come by for social calls. Especially the chief."

Noah wanted to know what was going on, why he was the subject of discussion. Only one way to find out, so let's get it over with. Clearing his throat in an attempt to announce his presence, he walked down the last of the stairs and hit the lobby, approached the two of them, one in front of the reservation desk, the other behind it.

"Speak of the devil," Roy Hatcher said as he turned to face Noah.

"Chief Hatcher. Something you need from me?"

"Some answers."

"I guess you'd need to ask some questions first," Noah said. "You know, Chief, I've been nothing but cooperative with you from the start of this tragedy about Ms. Eldreth, yet you continue to take a tone with me that I don't appreciate. I've done nothing wrong."

"We'll see about that. Let's talk, you and I. How about out on the porch. For privacy."

This last remark was directed at Cilla. She seemed unimpressed with his methods. "I'll find out what's going on, Roy. You know how Cane's Inlet is. Nothing stays a secret forever."

Noah probably would have debated that, since he knew a certain secret had stayed that way for at least twenty-eight years, but perhaps it was all coming to a head. Regardless, she didn't wait for Hatcher's reply and just retreated to her office. She closed the door hard, leaving just Noah and the police chief alone.

He extended a hand. "Difficult woman. After you," he said.

Noah said nothing, accepting his fate that he was going to have yet another discussion with the chief of police. Back in White Pine, the only conversation he'd ever had with the police was asking if they wanted a refill on their coffee at Shiner's. But it seemed ever since he'd arrived in Cane's Inlet, the two parties couldn't avoid each other. Which is what Noah led with once they were both situated outside on the porch. The morning sun was still rising. It was going to be another beautiful spring day. Temperatures beginning to creep upwards, summer's tease on display.

"We meet again," Noah said.

"Seems that keeps happening."

"Is there a problem?" Noah asked.

"You could say that."

"Not sure what I could have to do with whatever happened..."

"You keep saying that. And yet..."

"And yet, you keep insinuating that I'm somehow involved in something...nefarious."

"Interesting word. Speaks of conspiracy."

Noah sighed. "Chief Hatcher, why don't you just tell me what's going on?"

"I'll ask the questions."

This was getting tiresome. "So ask them."

"Where were you this morning?"

"This morning? I was here, in my room. You just saw me come downstairs."

"I mean earlier."

"Chief, you're going to have to be more specific."

"Four a.m. Let's start with that time."

"Um, I was asleep."

"Where?"

"Excuse me?"

"It's a pretty simple question. Were you in your room here at the Ocean's Breeze?"

Well, no, Noah thought. He had been lying in the arms of a man who'd just made love to him for the third time that night. The two of them were entwined, satiated, happy, lost in a deep sleep. But Noah wasn't just going to give up that information without knowing why Hatcher was asking.

"How is that any of your business?"

"So you weren't in your room."

"I didn't say that." Noah surprised himself with his response. When did he get so expert in deflecting a police interrogation?

"Look, Noah, this is serious."

Noah detected a change in the chief's voice, a catch. "So tell me what's going on? Without anything concrete, I'm just assuming this is about the murder of Donna Eldreth. As you know, I had nothing to do with it, and neither did Demetri."

"Interesting you mention him. He's lacking an alibi for last night, too."

"And why would he need one? Chief, you're not gonna get your answers by being evasive."

"We found a body this morning, early."

Noah felt a shock hit his system. Words he wasn't expecting to hear, or at least that's what he was telling himself. Didn't he suspect, deep down, that this was the case the moment he heard Hatcher's voice at the Breeze? A body. Which meant a second one. Now Noah had his own set of questions, except he held off, knowing Hatcher would reveal only what he wanted.

"Same method, throat slit," Hatcher said.

"My God," Noah said. "You've identified the...uh, victim?"

Hatcher nodded. Didn't give up a name. He simply nodded.

"And you're not going to tell me who. Not that it would matter. I barely know anyone in town."

"Hmm. Until now, Noah, I think you've been pretty straight with me."

"Until now? That's quite the qualifier."

"You met the victim the other day. Interacted with her."

Her. That was progress. Plus, the fact he'd met her. These facts didn't help his situation.

"I repeat, where were you last night...early this morning, whatever you want to call it."

"Chief Hatcher, I assure you, not only do I have an alibi, but so does Demetri. Because we were together. Whatever happened, there's no way either of us could have been involved. And if, as you say, the killing mirrored that of Donna Eldreth's, then...doesn't that prove that Demetri is completely innocent? You're barking up the wrong tree. You have a killer on your hands, yes, but I can assure you it's not Demetri."

"Tell me where you were."

"Not that's it's any of your business, sir, but we were near the shore, under the boardwalk beneath Atlantic Amusements. You don't have to add two and two to figure out what was going on."

Hatcher nodded. "So you two had sex. All night?"

"That's rather personal. All night is..."

"Did you two sleep there? Spend the entire night there?"

"Well, yeah, but..."

"So, can you claim to have been in Demetri Cane's presence the entire time?"

Noah was confused. The two of them had fallen asleep in each other's arms. Had Demetri stirred at any point during the early morning? Gotten up? Had there been a time when he hadn't felt the man's sweet touch while he'd slept on the soft blanket, the sand their mattress? And what of later that morning, when Noah had gone running off to the Hatcher house? He hadn't seen or talked to Demetri since then. Giving him time unaccounted for.

"You're wrong," Noah said. "I mean, the body, where was it found, discovered, and when, I mean...who called it in?"

"A local fisherman, gearing up for a day at sea. Discovered same place as Ms. Eldreth. Not far from where you two were...cavorting. Stone's Bay Beach."

A chill hit him; the death occurring so close to where they'd affirmed life. "That's awful. I'm sorry to hear that, mostly because it's as you feared. Donna Eldreth's murder wasn't random. But Chief Hatcher, just tell me. You say I knew her. Who was murdered?"

"See, Noah, that's where things get real interesting, and it's the reason I've sought you out. Seems Cane's Inlet's latest victim was the attending nurse when you went to the emergency room the other day--some sort of cut on your finger? Name of Cassie Lancaster. That makes two of them, two nurses, dead on the beach," he said. "You got anything to say about that?"

Noah felt himself flush. He stared down at his stitched finger. Thought about the woman who'd both helped him medically and thwarted him personally. Cassie had refused to answer his questions before practically throwing him out of the hospital. "I...I don't know."

The realization hit him that Chief of Police Roy Hatcher hadn't come by the Ocean Breeze to ask about Demetri's alibi. He was asking about Noah's.

Noah had been directly linked to another murder.

Just then the sun broke over the horizon, casting a blood orange glow across the porch. It was like Noah had been placed under an interrogation lamp.