The early-morning fog had yet to be burned off by a sun still snoozing behind low-lying clouds, but the gulls were already circling over the bay and the shorebirds had begun to forage along the waterline. Although almost summer, the air still bore a bit of a chill, and the remnants of a cool spring night hung in the damp air. Waves rolled gently onto the beach, tiny swells outlined with white foam that left damp impressions on the pale yellow sand. Overhead, a gull screamed at the intruder who crested the top of the dune.
“Oh, shut up.” The woman barely glanced at the ornery bird that swooped over her head and continued to rain gull curses down upon her.
Detective Cassandra Burke stood with her hands on her hips, and through the fog sought the outline of the Barnegat Lighthouse across the bay. She’d just ended her fourth night of surveillance of a motel where suspected drug sales were being conducted, and she was both exhausted from lack of sleep and stiff from inactivity. She toed off her shoes and left them in the sand, then set off for the marina a mile down the beach. She’d walk the kinks out, then run back. Two miles wasn’t really long enough, but it was the best she could do this morning. Maybe she’d feel better. Maybe not. But she had a meeting at eight, and needed to sandwich in a little exercise, then a little breakfast, before she headed to the police station.
The sand on the bay beach was coarser than that on the ocean side, and allowed a more solid footing. She walked briskly, sidestepping the spiny helmets of the dead and dying horseshoe crabs that had washed up onshore overnight and had been unable to crawl back before the tide went out. When she reached the inlet, she paused long enough to watch a few large power boats—charters, mostly—as they set out to sea with their passengers, sport fishermen who had paid for the privilege of casting their lines into the Atlantic with hopes of snagging a few feisty blues before the sun set later that day.
She waved to the captain of the Normandy Maid as it passed, a half-dozen or so eager fishermen on deck, their baseball caps shielding their faces from the sun that would soon enough grace them with its presence, their arms and noses slick with SPF 35. It wasn’t much of a living, running a charter, but for those who’d never done much else, it was a way of life, a life she knew well. Her father had captained his own boat, the Jenny B, named after her mother. He’d never made much money, but he loved to go to work every day. In the off-season, he ran the only boat storage facility in Bowers Inlet, but his life was out on the water. Few days passed that didn’t find Cass here, at the point where the bay eased into the ocean, watching the boats head out, and remembering. As a very little child, she’d watched from her mother’s arms as her father’s boat chugged by.
“Wave to Daddy, Cassie,” her mother would say. “See him there, on the deck? Wave to Daddy, honey . . .”
And Cass would wave wildly. Most days, her father would salute as he passed, touching just his right index finger to the brim of his hat.
A few years later, Cass stood on the rocks nearest the water, holding tightly to her little sister’s hand.
“Wave to Daddy, Trish,” she’d say. “Wave to Daddy . . .”
The alarm on her watch buzzed, bringing her back to the present. She turned away from the inlet and started back down the beach, running so fast her muscles barely had time to burn before she reached the spot where she’d left her shoes. If she was going to grab something to eat before her meeting, she’d have to leave now.
She wanted real food. Through the wee hours of the night, she’d had enough coffee to keep her wired for several days, while Jeff Spencer, the only other detective on the town’s small police force, had packed away enough cream donuts to make her sick just to watch. Eggs and sausage and toast should do it, she was thinking as she slipped into her shoes. And orange juice. Her stomach rumbling, she headed back to her car. If she drove fast enough, she might even have time for a short stack of pancakes.
“Yes?” Cassie paused midway across the lobby of the new police station.
“The lady at the desk there . . .”
“Sergeant Carter.” Emphasis on sergeant.
“Right. Sergeant Carter. She said you were working on my son’s case . . .”
“Your son is . . . ?”
“Derrick Mills.” He spoke the name softly.
“Yes. Derrick. Yes, I’m working on that case.” Cassie swallowed back a sigh. Derrick Mills was one of five kids arrested for selling drugs at the regional high school three weeks ago. She wasn’t blind to the father’s pain and embarrassment and wished she could ease it somehow, even as she knew she could not.
“I was wondering what we had to do, you know, to get the charges dropped. He’s a good kid, Detective. Top athlete, good student. He’s got a scholarship to play baseball in college next year.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mills. I really am. But Derrick should have thought about that scholarship before he offered to sell cocaine to Officer Connors.”
“Please, Mr. Mills. Save your breath. I’ve made my report and my recommendations, and they stand. There’s nothing I can do. Now, if you want to talk to the county DA’s office, you go right ahead and make that call. But right now, I’m late for a meeting. So if you’ll excuse me . . .”
“You know, I expected more from Bob Burke’s girl.” His voice had dropped to a low growl.
“Don’t even go there.” She shook her head and walked past him.
Cass made an effort to not glance back at the angry father while she fought down her own anger. It wasn’t the first time someone had invoked her father’s name, as if somehow having known him entitled them to special favors from her. It certainly wouldn’t be the last. It just flat-out pissed her off every time.
The meeting had been changed from the large conference room to a small room adjacent to the chief’s office.
“Denver must have whittled down the guest list,” Cass said as she took a seat across the table from Jeff Spencer.
“So far, it’s you and me, Burke.” Jeff rattled a bag in her direction. “Hey, there’s one last strawberry cream here. I believe it’s got your name on it.”
“Jesus, how can you eat that crap all the time?” Grimacing, she turned her head away from the bag with the donut rolling around in it.
“I don’t understand that sugar phobia of yours.” Spencer shook his head.
“I don’t understand why you’re not so wired from all that sugar that you’re buzzing around the room like a popped balloon.”
“Ah, you’re both here. Good. Good.” Chief of Police Craig Denver stuck his head through the door that led from his office. “Let me grab my coffee . . .”
Denver disappeared momentarily, then was back in a flash with his oversized mug and a manila file. He took a seat at the head of the table and busied himself with a napkin and a coaster and his glasses, as if postponing whatever it was he had brought them here to discuss.
“I hate this part of the job,” he sighed. “You both know that the administrative details of this job drive me crazy. Paperwork, reports, statistics . . . waste of my time. But you don’t get to pick and choose, not in this job, not in any.”
Cass bit back a grin. She’d heard this same spiel right about this time last year. And the year before, and the year before. She suspected that the intro was for Spencer’s sake. He’d only been with the department for a few months.
“Let me guess. The insurance company asked for an updated training manual again,” she deadpanned.
“Updated and expanded.”
“And you want one of us to volunteer to sit down with Phyl and proofread the pages before she sends them in.” Cass toyed with a fingernail.
“That about sums it up.” Denver smiled.
“It’s Spencer’s turn.” Cass twirled her pen. “I did all the proofing last year. And the year before.”
“Then you have the experience, don’t you?” Spencer’s eyes narrowed. His wife had already issued an ultimatum about him spending too many of his off-duty hours on department business and he’d sworn he’d make an effort to spend more time with her and their new baby, and less time working.
“Fair is fair, Spencer, and I—”
Phyllis Lannick, the chief’s secretary, poked her head in the doorway.
“Sorry to interrupt, Chief, but Officer Helms is on the phone and he says it’s an emergency. He sounds rattled.” She pointed to the phone on the small table behind him. “Line two.”
Denver raised an eyebrow as he reached for the phone.
“Emergency, Helms? Hey, hey. Slow down. Take a deep breath and start over . . .”
The chief went silent then, listening. The color drained from his face.
“I have Burke and Spencer right here. They’re on their way. Goes without saying that no one touches anything until the scene has been processed. Keep everyone out of the area until I can get the county CSI out there.” He hung up and turned to his two detectives.
Before either could ask, he said, “The manual will have to wait. They just found a body out near Wilson’s Creek.”
“A body?” Cassie asked as if she’d not heard correctly. “Where along the creek?”
“Right outside of town, near Marsh Road. Just look for the cars. Apparently all three of our patrol cars and a couple of emergency vehicles are already there, parked along the roadside before the bridge. You won’t be able to miss them. Try to keep everyone in line until the county people arrive. I’ll meet you there.” He shoved his chair out from the table, muttering, “Just what we need, a homicide right as the season opens.”
“Homicide?” Cass paused on her way to the door and turned.
“That’s Helms’s take on it. See if he’s right . . .”
Excerpted from Cold Truth by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2005 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.