A Touch of Death
The rising sun gently caressed the mountains west of Lake Tahoe with bright fingers. It revealed their stony grandeur in a blaze of glory that hardly relieved the gloom on the beach as I ran. The temperature was just starting to nudge up from the upper thirties. That was Lake Tahoe summers for you. You got enjoyable warm days and bitingly cold nights.
I was so busy enjoying the view that I almost missed the man floating face up in the shallows. I skidded to a halt in surprise, my braided red hair swinging wildly at the sudden change in momentum.
My breath fogged the air around me as I stared in shock, but his breath didn't. The water was cold enough to kill and he was just floating in it.
I looked around franticly for help. The tall pine trees to my right shielded the still sleeping town of Angel's Point from my sight. It was almost as if I was alone in the wilderness. I had my doubts about a little slip of a woman like myself being able to pull a full-grown man out of the water, but given when and where I was, I didn't have much of a choice.
The water felt ice cold as I ran to the man's side. My running sweats were instantly soaked. In the growing light, I could see his wide eyes staring off into infinity. I could also see that he wasn't breathing.
I grabbed his black windbreaker at the neck and pulled him toward the shore with all my might. He moved a few inches, his body scraping along the shallow bottom. I grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled again.
That brought me into water only a few inches deep. One more heave and I'd have his head and shoulders on the beach. I renewed my grip on his collar and pulled. Something coldly metallic kissed my left hand and I fell heavily on my butt at the rim of the beach. I had a moment to blink at the small medallion on a chain around his neck before I was plunged into darkness.
It took a moment to recognize what I was seeing. It was a vision and I had no choice but to ride it out to the end. There was no breaking the hold of the curse.
I was standing on a dock looking out over Lake Tahoe at night. Well, technically the man was standing there but the only thoughts in my head were mine. I might have to ride his emotions, but his thoughts were absent. Thank God.
An overhead light shed an eerie glow, but didn't fully dispel the disquieting darkness around me. There was a cabin cruiser moored to my right. I could barely make out part of the boat's name emblazoned on the white hull - "something Valkyrie."
The view over the lake was a familiar one for me. I saw almost this exact view from my bedroom window at the Lodge. But this wasn't the Lodge's dock. That left only the dock at Angel's Point Inn on the other end of the mile-long stretch of beach from the Lodge.
I wanted to look around - no, I wanted to turn around and run. Alas, neither of those things was going to happen. At this point, the man was providing all my sensory input. I could only see what the man had seen, and I could only sense what he felt at that moment. The overwhelming emotion that I tasted was his anger. If I was lucky, I might get a clue as to why he had been so angry.
I couldn't just keep thinking of him as "the man." That never felt right when I had a vision. John Doe was better. True, too.
Behind me, I heard a creak of wood. It might be the sound a boat rubbing against the dock. I knew it wasn't, but I could always hope.
I strained to hear anything more, but only normal sounds from the lake greeted me. That didn't fool me. I knew someone had quietly walked up behind me and was standing there in silence.
John didn't bother turning around. His voice was well articulated and colored by irritation. "I told you I'm not going to stop, so you might as well..."
The sudden kick behind John's left knee was a surprise to both of us. He fell heavily and his wrist flared with pain as he landed heavily on it. Before he could struggle, strong fingers grabbed his hair and slammed his head into something hard.
Pain exploded like a supernova across my consciousness. I knew it wasn't mine, but that didn't lessen the impact one bit. Everything began swirling darkly around me.
John's neck began to burn with pain, but his body went strangely numb. No, not numb ... absent. He couldn't seem to breathe. Panic exploded inside his mind. Mine, too.
John's attacker grabbed the collar of his jacket and dragged him to the edge of the pier. There was a brief sensation of falling and then cold, dark water blotted out John's vision. No matter how hard he tried, his arms and legs wouldn't move and he sank into the frigid water.
I felt cold sand against my cheek - my cheek, not his. I opened my eyes. I'd fallen onto my side above John. The vision had ended.
Passing out wasn't a normal side effect of a vision - not that anything about this could be considered normal - but they weren't usually this powerful either. I took a deep breath and tried to sit up, but my body refused to cooperate.
The damned visions just wouldn't leave me alone. They made me different from everyone else and I hated that. I saw things and felt emotions that weren't mine. They were strong and sometimes more painful than I could stand.
I should've known better than to touch a stranger's things. I knew I had to be careful. Strong emotion could imprint itself onto something a person was holding or touching. Metal like that worked all too damned well as a storage device, no matter how long ago the event.
Normally, I only saw other people's quarrels, joys, and everything in between. This time I'd seen murder and I couldn't seem to think.
Strong hands interrupted my fuzzy thoughts as they grabbed my shoulder and rolled me onto my back. I screamed. At least my voice worked.
A man's face loomed over me, dark, curly hair clinging close to his scalp. Opaque obsidian eyes burned with worry.
"It's okay," he said. "I won't hurt you."
He wore a dark leather jacket, a plain black T-shirt, and jeans. His shoulders were wide, and his waist was trim. The tight shirt highlighted his well-defined abdominal muscles. I shouldn't have looked but they were right there sitting in plain sight.
It took a moment before I recognized him. His name was Tyrone Walker. We'd gone to high school together. My mother warned me about boys like him. I pressed her for more details eagerly. She told me firmly to steer clear of him. She told me he was dangerous and after watching him from afar, I decided she was right.
He'd been a dark and mysterious figure that rode a motorcycle and had girls dancing around him. They swarmed like moths drawn to a flame. The whispered gossip my friends had passed around about him had both excited and terrified me.
I'd longed to ask him out and see for myself, but I chickened out. However, he did feature prominently in a number of quiet, late-night fantasies. After graduation, he joined the Navy and disappeared from Angel's Point.
"Tyrone Walker?" I asked. "What are you doing here?" Well, that certainly made me sound like an idiot. The damned vision had really taken it out of me.
He blinked in surprise.
"Call me Ty," he said automatically. "Are you okay?"
I struggled to think of a safe, plausible explanation for collapsing and only came up with one that didn't make me sound like a kook. I'd have to go with the weak, girly excuse, as much as I hated people thinking of me like that. This sucked.
"I ... I must've fainted." I struggled to a sitting position and stared at the body. "I've never..."
The explanation, as much as it torqued me, satisfied his worry for me. He slipped his jacket around my shoulders, making me suddenly aware I was shivering, and helped me stagger up the beach. I sat heavily in the dry sand and pulled the warm jacket tightly around me. Ty returned to John and started checking him.
"You're Candice Kane, right?" Ty asked. He sounded like he wasn't convinced he remembered the right name. I couldn't blame him. Candy Kane sounded like a gag. One becomes resigned to the jokes and teasing after a while. Mom swears Dad slipped it past her while she was still recovering after giving birth to me. Knowing my dad, it's probably true.
Frankly, I was astounded he remembered my name. "I like Candy better. You remember me?"
The corner of his mouth quirked up as those dark eyes glanced up at me. "How many five foot tall redheads could there be in Angel's Point? Believe me, no one that's seen you once would forget."
He felt John's neck and shook his head. The dawn had finally reached the beach and I took a good look at John. He was dressed in soaked jeans, a dark blue sweater, and a black windbreaker. One foot had a brown loafer but the other was bare. It was difficult to judge his age but he couldn't have been over forty.
"No joy. I'd say he's been in the water for at least several hours, if not all night," Ty said, looking up at me again. "His name is Steven Armstrong. Something hit him hard on the side of his skull. I'd say his neck is broken."
My mouth dropped open. He'd more or less described my vision and he knew the guy's name, too.
"How do you know all that?" I demanded when I could finally speak.
"Let's just say that he's not the first dead body I've seen pulled out of the water." He stood and brushed sand off his pants.
I didn't know how to respond to that. I forced myself to focus. "We need to call the Sheriff's Department."
"I called them on my cell when I saw what you were pulling out of the lake." The corner of his mouth quirked up again. "I expect they won't be too pleased with me hanging up on them."
"They do tend to get worked up about things like that," I agreed. I rubbed the bridge of my nose tiredly. "I didn't see you. Where were you hiding?"
He pointed at the trees between the beach and the highway. "I came out here before dawn and was sitting in the trees watching the sun hit the mountains. I saw you coming but I'm ashamed to say I missed the dead body in the dark water. That was incredibly careless of me. I shouldn't have left you with the burden of finding something like this."
It took a moment but I finally decided he was being serious. Men. Who could understand them? We couldn't change the past. Life only went forward.
"How did you know his name?" I asked, nodding toward Armstrong.
Ty considered the man expressionlessly. "I work for him. That should be past tense, I suppose."
Ty shrugged. "He hired me to help raise a ship from the south end of the lake. The S.S. Tahoe, a ship that used to make the circuit of the lake before there were roads. Her owners intentionally sunk her back in 1940. Armstrong wanted to get her afloat, restore her, and turn her into a floating museum."
I nodded. "The local paper said something about divers going down to it. I seem to remember that it was so deep they couldn't stay more than a few minutes and it was dangerous as hell. How can you recover something like that?"
"Armstrong bought a special deep diving suit from Canada. That's where I come in. I trained in something similar in the Navy. I'm supposed to go down and secure the lifts to the hull and they'll fill them with air and lift the ship."
If Ty thought having a normal conversation next to a dead man was odd, he didn't mention it. With the memory of his death still coloring my emotions, I gratefully seized upon this segue into normality.
We didn't have time to say anything else before I heard a siren wailing in the distance. Ty stood up, brushed the sand from his knees, and took a couple of steps toward the tree-shrouded highway. I slowly followed.
A sheriff's Deputy, Andy Milbank, came trotting out of the trees and took the scene in quickly. He ran to the body and made the same assessment that Ty and I had already made. Like ours, his didn't take more than a few seconds. He stood up and murmured into the microphone clipped to the shoulder of his uniform. It didn't matter that it was too soft for me to make out the words. It was probably in police-speak anyway.
I'd known Andy since we were kids. A year younger than me, he'd made the ritual passes at me during high school, and had taken my polite no with good grace. In a town of four thousand, I ran into him frequently, but never during something like this.
He had his cop face on, all professional and dispassionate. "This is a part of the job I could live without," he said. He nodded at me. "Candy." He raised an eyebrow at Ty. "You look familiar but I can't place the face."
"Tyrone Walker." Ty offered his hand.
A look of recognition dawned in Andy's eyes. "Angel Point's own James Dean. Welcome home, prodigal son." Andy shook Ty's hand. Then he gestured to John, or rather Steven Armstrong.
"Dispatch said a man called this in. Was that you?" Ty nodded. "Dispatch is plenty peeved with you for hanging up on them. What happened here?"
Ty went first. I was grateful to have to time to order my thoughts. Andy jotted our statements down in his notebook in just a few minutes.
I wished I could have given him something more solid than my public story. Even if I could've mentioned the vision, it didn't provide any details about the identity of the killer - other than the fact the victim seemed to know his killer. A fact I was sure the Sheriff's Department would quickly ferret out.
The only nudge I could give him was where I thought Armstrong went into the lake. The sluggish current along the beach did run from the north, as the body and my vision proved. Andy didn't look convinced, but he did pass my hunch on through the radio. There was probably little evidence anyway, so I hoped they would get someone to the dock before a boater messed up the crime scene.
By the time we finished going through our stories another Sheriff's Deputy and a couple of guys in a Coroner's van had pulled up behind Andy's car. The other Deputy brought me a blanket. I tried to return Ty's jacket but he waved my gesture away.
I was starting to wonder what I should do now when Andy returned from his patrol car.
"Senior Deputy Cooper's at the dock," He said. "He'd like you to join him." I knew Cooper well enough. I'd known him since he'd first come to Angel's Point twenty years ago. As the top man around here, he'd be in charge during the investigation. I wasn't sure if that was good news because I thought he was a little unimaginative.
I shrugged and nodded. I needed to see my part of this through. Ty joined me in the back of the patrol car. As I buckled in, I gave him a look. I'd never been in the back of a police car before, but I bet he'd had more than a few trips in one. That would just fit his reputation.
Ty smiled briefly at me. "This is nice. It's so new it doesn't smell like drunken tourists. That's real classy."
"Do you have much experience with cop cars and drunken tourists?" I asked, amused.
"Well, I have been a tourist, and I do have a lot of experience with the back seats of cars. Some were police cars." He waggled his eyebrows at me. "Some weren't." When I just grinned and shook my head, he asked, "In any case, does that count?"
I considered making a smart reply, but opted for ladylike silence instead. From his expression, I gathered I wasn't too successful but he let it pass for the half-mile drive to the Inn.
The Fletchers built the Angel's Point Inn some thirty years ago. When my ex, Calvin Bender, and his new wife Dora had taken over management from her parents three years ago, they carried the modern concept to what I saw as a distasteful extreme. Their remodeling was all glass, chrome, brass, and sharp angles. It looked so modern now that I couldn't stand it. It was very out of place here in rustic Angel's Point. Anyone who found this monstrosity pretty had all their taste in their mouth.
Yet, somehow, the redesign of the Inn had gotten all the requisite approvals and in the Lake Tahoe basin that was supposed to be difficult. I darkly suspected bribery every chance I could.
My mother said I was just letting my distaste for Calvin and Dora color my opinions. I disagreed, though I had plenty of reason to dislike Calvin and Dora.
Our marriage had been a short one. I caught Calvin on our couch with Dora less than a month after our honeymoon. Those who said our divorce was acrimonious were guilty of gross understatement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was less divisive. Frankly, if it weren't for the total support of my family and the fact I loved Kane Lodge, I probably would've left Angel's Point.
Marrying Calvin had been a mistake. Everyone warned me what a slug he was but I refused to listen. Dora, on the other hand, I knew would do anything to hurt me. She'd made school a living hell when we were growing up. This wasn't something she picked up from her parents, either. Her mom and dad were nice people, and kept the competition between our families from becoming personal. We'd even had dinner every couple of months until they retired to Hawaii.
Dora settled on a scorched earth policy for dealing with me in middle school and thereafter. I suppose seducing my brand new husband and wooing the two-timing bastard during the divorce was the ultimate in slap-in-the-face rivalry by the overly made up skank.
I took a deep breath and forced those thoughts from my mind. Calvin and Dora would have to take their turn. I tried to open the door when the car pulled to a stop, but the handle didn't work. Duh! It was a police car.
Andy let us out and escorted us around the outside of the Inn. That was good. With any luck, I'd be gone before Calvin or Dora cornered me. I wanted to see them less than the dead body.
Deputy Cooper stood about halfway down the dock looking out over the water with his hands in his pockets. He wasn't much to look at, with an unfortunate comb-over and a belly like a walrus. He waved for us to join him.
"Morning, Deputy Cooper," I said when we drew close.
He took off his uniform cap and used his handkerchief to wipe his forehead. Even in the cool temperatures, he was sweating. "Miss Kane, I'm sorry you had to find such a terrible thing."
"Unlike Mister Armstrong, I'll get over it," I said. I heard Ty chuckle at my dark humor.
"You were right," Cooper said. "I'm pretty sure he went into the water right here."
Crime scene tape sealed off several of the knee-high pilings and something dark stained the wood on one. I swallowed heavily.
"Is that blood?" I asked, my stomach feeling queasy.
"Looks to be," Cooper agreed with a nod. "We'll get some samples and send them off to the County seat. It looks like he hit pretty hard. I figure it stunned him and he fell into the water and drowned."
I nodded. The fact that Armstrong had a broken neck would come out sooner or later. The challenge was going to be figuring out how to steer Cooper toward the fact that it wasn't an accident.
"But that's not all," he continued. "Look at this." He pointed at a smeared streak on the planks near the stained piling. "Grease. It suggests how things might have happened."
"Um..." I said delicately. "Isn't it too soon to be saying that? You need to look at everything first, don't you? Like on CSI: New York?"
"New York?" Ty asked. "Why not Miami?"
I'd forgotten he was standing behind me. "Because I can't stand that red-haired guy. I think my ex-husband has more personality."
Cooper nodded. "We'll look at every bit of evidence. I found a shoe on the dock that sounds like a match for the one still on Mister Armstrong. There's some grease on its sole. Like I said, it's not certain but it is one possibility."
I didn't like the direction this seemed to be going. It might look like an accidental death to everyone but me but they had to look into it as a murder.
I was considering the best way to move the conversation that way when a voice I detested called from behind me. My skin crawled. It was like knowing Darth Vader was standing right behind you.
"Deputy Cooper." Calvin's voice was smooth, like pond scum.
I forced my expression into a pleasant fa‡ade and turned to face him. I was less than overjoyed to see he had Dora with him. Whoever said 'no good deed goes unpunished' was dead on the money. I winced mentally at my poor choice of words.
Some might describe Calvin as a distinguished looking man in his mid-thirties, typically dressed in slacks and a yuppie sweater. His brown hair was prematurely graying at the temples and he looked like a perfect gentleman.
I usually described him in less exalted terms.
In a fashion blunder of the first order, Dora was dressed in an outfit matching her slime husband, my ex, Calvin. Sad to say, she looked better over-dressed in her usual designer trash. She overshadowed me by six inches and one look at her chest would convince anyone she was a proponent of body enhancements. I plastered a fake smile on my face for Cooper's benefit.
Calvin pointedly ignored me. No doubt determined to raise my blood pressure. Dora shot mental death rays in my direction.
"What brings you out so early?" he asked. "Is something wrong?"
"I'm afraid so," Cooper said with a nod to Dora. "Ma'am. Does the name Steven Armstrong mean anything to you?"
Calvin and Dora exchanged glances. "He's a guest," Calvin admitted. "Why?"
"Well," Cooper said slowly, "I'm afraid there's been an accident."
"We don't know that," I said.
"What are you blathering about?" Dora asked, her eyes narrowing at me before skewering Cooper. "What's going on here?"
"I'm afraid that Mister Armstrong is dead," Cooper said. "There's some indication he went in the water here."
Dora's eyes widened and she rounded on me. "And you're trying to spin this as something other than a terrible accident? You spiteful bitch!"
She started for me; her fingers extended like claws. Calvin yanked her up short like a dog that had reached the end of his chain when by grabbing her jacket. She snarled at him wordlessly but subsided.
Calvin stared at me with lordly indifference. "Candy never got over me leaving her, you know. It's made her bitter." He turned back to Cooper. "This is terrible news. I'm horrified. We'll cooperate in any way you need."
I stared at him, astounded beyond words. That was the most outrageous thing I'd ever heard. The getting over business, anyway. Leave it to the self-centered jerk to turn someone's death into a chance to take a shot at me.
It was par for the course, though. We made the Hatfield's and McCoy's seem like a girl fight after school. This, however, was going too far.
Ty stepped between us before I got over my shocked outrage and throttled either one of them. "Everyone take a deep breath," he said calmly. "No one's saying there was foul play. Candy's just saying nobody should rush to judgment."
Calvin dismissed Ty with a look. "You don't know her like we do, Mister Walker. She'll do anything to get even with us. She's a small woman in every respect. Take my advice and steer clear of her. In any case, this is none of your business so stay out of it."
Ty smiled benignly but I could see a gleam in his eyes. If Calvin had gone to school with Ty, he'd have known he'd just made a serious mistake. Too bad for him.
Calvin spared me another glance. "Why are you here again, Candy? Don't you have something else to do? Someone else to bother?"
Deputy Cooper shook his head tiredly. "Don't get your shorts in a twist. I brought her here as part of my investigation. She stays till I'm done with her."
I'd said my piece so it was time to let it go. "I've told you what I know. If you have any other questions give me a call."
Cooper nodded and slipped his hat back on. "Thanks for your help, Miss Kane."
I nodded as graciously as I could and let Ty steer me around my ex and his skank while considered and rejected making another lunge for her. That superior smirk on his face just made me want to scream.
We were almost past when Ty's right foot abruptly slipped sideways and he staggered heavily to the left. I grabbed him but all that did was get me dragged along with him as he started to go down.
He would have fallen, except his shoulder rammed into Dora's and sent her crashing into Calvin. Calvin shot off the side of the dock and into the water with a tremendous splash before he even knew what was happening. Dora teetered on the brink for a moment, her arms wind milling frantically for balance, before she followed her husband into the cold water with a scream.
Ty stood there with an artful expression of consternation on his face. "Oh, dear." He shrugged to the deputy. "I must've slipped on something." He looked over at the drenched couple. "Sorry about that. You really need to clean up this dock. So many slipping incidents might cause a lawsuit."
I stood there in awe of him as Cooper began trying to fish them out while they screamed at us. "Let's go to the Lodge and get some breakfast. I'd like to catch up."
"Good call. You need a lift home and you'll love my car."
The morning was looking up after all.