“Do you think he’s dead or just dead drunk?” I asked Fiona as the two of us stood alone on the freight dock with thick night fog swirling around us. We were staring at a guy prone on the pier with a champagne bottle clutched in his arms.
I grabbed Fiona’s hand as we shuffled a little closer. “Uh oh, he’s staring back at us and not in a Hey come have a drink with me kind of way.”
“And there’s blood, a lot of blood.” Both of us shivered, from the wind gusts off Lake Huron as much as from our present situation.
“This is terrible.” Fiona made the sign of the cross and I did the same. I wasn’t Catholic, but I needed to do something…anything…and right now there weren’t a lot of options. “How does this keep happening to you?”
I did a double-blink and stared at Fiona. “Excuse me?”
“Mackinac’s a little island and you’re here tonight picking up kites to sell at your bike shop but instead – oh gee guess what – you come across yet another body!”
“Hold on a minute, stop right there.” I dropped Fiona’s hand and jabbed her on the forehead partially covered by the purple sequin paperboy cap befitting her occupation of Town Crier editor. “Forget the you part about the bodies. Okay, the first one was mine – I’ll give you that, but the last one was definitely a we body. We both found it and you’re the one who was accused of making it dead and this is not my fault.”
“All I know is when you landed here two years ago, Irish Donna said there was a black cloud hanging over you. If this corpse is any indication, the cloud hasn’t changed one bit. I think it’s getting darker.”
“Maybe a little.” I took a closer look at the body as the waves lapped at the shoreline and wood pilings under our feet. “Do you recognize him?”
“No, but he’s cute.” Fiona’s words mixed with the foghorn bellowing in the harbor, her breath making little puffy moisture clouds that faded into the night. “Well, he was cute when he didn’t have that big gash on the side of his head and don’t give me that how can you say such a thing look, Evie Bloomfield. I lived in LA for three and two-thirds years and covered some pretty grizzly stuff. Maybe he’s from one of the work ferries or barges. This is the island’s freight dock and he’s dressed in jeans and a work jacket.”
“The most grizzly thing you ever did out in LA was chow down on bad TexMex. You were a rag reporter covering celeb affairs, scandals, and the occasional I had Elvis’s baby.”
“Why couldn’t you just pay for delivery like everyone else does on this island?” Fiona huffed. “Then Captain wouldn’t have to hide the boxes of kites for you to pick up tonight and I wouldn’t be mixed up in something I can’t even put in the Crier. One whiff of a body around here and tourists will run for the ferries, taking their American Express cards with them and turning this island into a ghost town. Dead guy on dock is not a great tourist attraction.”
I was a come-here to Mackinac Island and Fiona was a born-here. In the last two years we’d bonded over OPI nail polish, Nutty Buddy ice cream cones, and a knack for snooping that included picking locks and telling whopper lies with a straight face. In my other life back in Chicago I’d been a grunt-level graphic designer. I wound up on the island when I tried to suck up to my boss to land a promotion. My great plan was to help her father who owned a bicycle shop and had broken his leg. That he got nailed for a murder on my watch did not help my promotion chances. I now owned part of Rudy’s Rides and painted old, rusted bikes shiny new again with such themes as golf, Batman, Babe Ruth – the baseball player and candy bar – or any other love-of-your-life you’d like to sport around town.
Fiona, who had felt the need to spread her wings, took a second-rate rag reporter job in LA and got accused of killing her boss when he followed her back to Mackinac. Not all homecomings were Welcome Home banners, brass bands, and family cookouts.
“What we should do,” Fiona offered, “is not touch anything and call the police, except Molly’s on desk duty tonight and you know how she is with bodies. Nate’s usually hanging around, but he’s up at the Grand Hotel at a hundred-bucks-a-plate dinner getting an award for spearheading the campaign to repair the limestone walls around Fort Mackinac. After two-hundred-and-fifty years they’re starting to look like Swiss cheese. Sutter’s having dessert about now and raspberry crème brûlée is his fave. You know he won’t be happy if we drag him away.”
“Happy? Well I’m sure as heck not happy keeping company with a dead guy and you don’t look too happy and Mr. Champagne is staring up at the sky and doesn’t have a smile on his face either, so that makes it Nate’s turn. He’s the chief of police around here and gets paid for not being happy. I’m ringing him up.”
“You’re just pissed that you didn’t get crème brûlée.”
I dug Sheldon, my beloved iPhone with Penny, knock, knock, knock as a ring tone, out of my jacket pocket and held it to the sky. This was more a valiant effort of looking for service bars then actually expecting to find any. Mackinac Island was known for many things like big horses; lots of bikes; the Grand Hotel that was truly grand; festivals for jazz, lilacs, ponies and anything else that came along; and selling ten tons of fudge a year to the tourists we lovingly called fudgies. Mackinac Island was not known for great cell phone service. Heck, it was known for no cell phone service.
“Surprise, surprise. No bars,” Fiona said looking over my shoulder. I pocketed the phone I used for playing Candy Crush and making selfies. The foghorn moaned again, mixing with the deep rumble of a passing freighter somewhere out there in the pea soup.
“Well, we can’t just leave the body. What if the killer comes back for it,” I finally said, trying to come up with a plan.
“Or he comes back and gets us.” We eyed the string of hazy fluorescents dotting the pier and leading back to the warehouse where we’d started. “You know it’s locked.”
“There’s a landline inside and these are desperate times.” We hoofed our way back up the pier, gravel crunching beneath our feet, as we crossed the lane to the warehouse. Byline whinnied and pawed the ground, telling us he was tired of pulling a cart all day and wanted to go home to a nice barn and fresh hay. I could relate except for the barn and hay part. I was more of a flannel Hello Kitty nightshirt and hot cocoa kind of girl.
“This rock should work.” I picked it up and started for the warehouse window when Fiona grabbed my hand. “What in the heck are you doing? Captain will have a canary if you bust a window. Just pick the freaking lock. The zipper pull on your fleece has two purple paperclips attached. My guess is they’re not strictly for decoration, more for breaking and entering when the occasion arises like right now, and if you break the window it’ll set off an alarm.”
“Nate can contact the alarm company to shut the thing off and if I pick the lock, he’ll get suspicious about other conveniently opened doors during our island capers. The rock is an innocent bystander, same as me.”
“Girlfriend, when it comes to you, Nate will never believe the innocent part.”
Twenty minutes later Nate Sutter, local police chief and celebrated hunk, trotted toward us on Shakespeare, his trusted steed. Through the mist I could barely make out Police stenciled in reflector yellow across his windbreaker and baseball cap. “Where’s your tux?”
“Shakespeare’s got a phobia about bowties.” Sutter studied Fiona then me then the busted window. “Captain’s going blow a gasket. Why didn’t you just pick the lock?”
“Told you so,” Fiona sing-songed as Nate slid to the ground. “How was the benefit?”
“Irish Donna ate my crème brûlée and I got a flintlock pistol to hang on my wall. I would have rather had my crème brûlée.”
Sutter tied Shakespeare to a post by the bike rack, Mackinac’s version of parking spaces. He unstrapped a black pouch from the saddle before following Fiona and me onto the dock, our footsteps making hollow sounds against the wood planks. Another forlorn foghorn blast reverberated through the darkness, the sound chilling me to my bones. If that headless horseman guy had galloped past us I wouldn’t have been one bit surprised. Actually, I would have peed my pants, but I’m just saying he would have fit right in.
“There.” I nodded to the body. “Poor guy. He didn’t deserve this.”
Sutter’s steps slowed before he stopped dead. His jaw tightened, his hands in a fist. Slowly he pulled a camera from the pouch and snapped away, the flashes blindingly bright against the darkness. He moved side to side for different angles then hunkered down beside the body cocooned in the damp mist.
“Why didn’t the killer just dump the body in the water?” I added. “I mean, why leave it out here on the dock for the entire world to see. We’ve got two deep lakes. Big ones. Disposing of a body is a snap.”
There was no response from Sutter, who usually recited a litany of police platitudes in these situations. Don’t touch anything, stay out of my way, and – my personal favorite- this is police business so get lost. Like that means anything to two self-proclaimed busybodies. Fiona and I exchanged what’s going on looks and I waved my hand in front of the camera. “Yoo-hoo. Anybody home? Got any idea what’s going on here, Mr. Police Officer?”
“How the heck should I know?” Sutter blurted a little too quickly. “And why don’t you pay for delivery like everyone else does around here instead of fumbling around in the dark.”
“Amen to that,” Fiona grunted.
“Well,” I pushed on, trying to connect the dots since Sutter was off in LaLa Land and Fiona was no help at all except griping at me about being cheap. “There aren’t any freighters tied up to the docks tonight, so Captain and the workers probably knocked off at six or so. It gets dark around 7:30 and it’s almost nine now. My guess is this happened in the last hour and a half when no one was around. A meeting of some kind? A celebration, since we got the champagne thing going on? But unless he’s with Greenpeace, there are better places to party than around crates of recycling.”
Sutter didn’t say a word and took a few more shots before grabbing a flashlight from his jacket pocket. He pulled on plastic gloves and unfolded bags marked Evidence. He checked the guy’s jean pockets, pulling out a pair of well-worn work gloves, a silver dollar money clip with a few bucks, a beat-up wallet, and a pocketknife with a wood handle. He opened the wallet and found John Bernard’s driver’s license, credit card, and insurance info plus a bent photo of a ponytailed guy with sexy scruff and white blazer standing next to a limo.
“With money and credit cards, we can rule out theft as a motive,” I said, “and look.” I snagging Sutter’s arm before he dropped the money clip in an evidence bag. “There’s an inscription on the back.” I pushed the flashlight closer and read, “Best Man and there’s a date. There’s writing on the knife too. Groomsman and another date.”
Still not saying a word, Sutter removed a silver flask from the guy’s jacket pocket.
“Flip it over,” Fiona said to Sutter. “These aren’t exactly typical dockhand acquisitions. I bet they’re gifts from being in weddings. I see them in bridal magazines all the time.” Fiona cut her eyes from me to Sutter, both of us staring at her. “Hey. I drool over the cakes, okay? Fewer calories and … Look right there!” Fiona pointed to the flask. “It says Best Man and there’s another date.”
Fiona put her hand to her heart and sighed deeply. “This was one of the good guys and a friend to a lot of people who wanted him to be a part of the most important day of their lives. He’s like one of those dreamy guys on The Hallmark Channel. Why can’t I meet guys like this?”
“Dead ones?” Sutter groused.
“The men I meet are after one thing, sports and beer.”
“That’s two things.”
“Seems like one.”
“And he has a watch,” I added. “It’s a nice one. Well, it was. I bet that’s from being in a wedding too, probably a best man.”
Sutter unbuckled the watch and flipped it over. I leaned closer and read, “Today my husband. Forever my best friend.”
“He’s married!” Fiona sobbed, grabbing my hand as a light rain started to fall.
“Or he stole all this stuff,” said Sutter.
“You are such a cynic.” I swiped away a tear.
“I’m a cop and a realist, something that you don’t find on The Hallmark Channel.” Sutter held the dead guy’s arm, probably checking for stiffness. I was no forensic guru, but how stiff a stiff is tells a lot about the time of death.
“The killer was probably hiding and whacked John over the head with…” I looked around. “Something hard and narrow. There’s a lot of recycling stuff to choose from and…” I snagged Sutter’s hand that held the flashlight and aimed the light onto the wood dock. “Look, blood drops, but we’re losing them in the rain.” I followed the dots with the light. “They lead over there to the edge of the pier.”
“Meaning the murder weapon’s in the drink.” Fiona pointed out into the lake. “Probably halfway to Canada by now along with his cell phone since we haven’t seen that either.”
Sutter picked something off the dock that was tucked under a recyling bin, the blade catching the light.
“Box cutter?” I said.
“And it’s not inscribed,” Sutter muttered.
“Our guy was expecting trouble if he had his box cutter out.”
“Our guy?” Sutter gave me a good grief look.
“And it was under the recycling crate, maybe the killer thought he tossed it in the lake with the murder weapon? It’s hard to see in all this fog.”
Not answering again, Sutter put the box cutter in a bag and sealed it, preserving any DNA evidence. Scary how much I knew about crime scenes these days. Sutter snapped pictures of the dock and blood drops then held his hand out to me. “Give me your jacket.”
“The man’s dead, Sherlock. There’s no warming him up now.”
Sutter stood. He turned slowly and offered a half smile. His body relaxed and he had a devilish glint in his eyes. The old Sutter was back. “Cute.”
“Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.”
“I’m always paying attention, Chicago. I’ll wrap the champagne in an evidence bag and then in your jacket so we don’t break it or screw up the fingerprints. I’ll put my jacket on this guy to protect the evidence. Doc’s due back from St. Ignace
tomorrow and we can’t just leave the body lying here as a photo op for tourists biking the island. The dock’s covered in footprints and shrapnel from loading and unloading and the weather’s getting worse by the minute. Forensic anything is impossible. We’ll need to keep this quiet. I’ll take the body in the carriage to the medical center and put it in the cooler, you two take Shakespeare, and as to why not dump the body off the pier…”
Sutter draped his arm over my shoulder and brought me close. “Bodies float, Chicago. They get washed ashore with the tides, especially with the big diesels churning up the water. Disposing of a body has to be done right. They have to be tied and weighed down and dumped out in the middle of the lake. Something to keep in mind the next time you and your sidekick here think about dragging me away from dessert. I can take care of things from here. You two take care of my horse then get back to whatever you were doing.”
Before I could protest Sutter headed for the carriage, leaving Fiona and me alone on the dock. She zipped her fleece against the damp chill and pursed her lips. “Does Nate really think we’re going to let this dead guy on the docks thing go? We found him and like it or not your black cloud affliction might have something to do with the guy being dead.” She poked my forehead. “You owe him.”
“We owe him, but for right now we have other problems. First, we have to help Nate load up a dead body. Not my favorite past-time. Then…” I patted Shakespeare and handed Fiona the reins. “I sure hope you know how to drive this thing ‘cause I don’t have a clue.”