Authors: Lawrence De Maria
An Alton Rhode Mystery
LAWRENCE DE MARIA
Turtle Dove, a novel by Lawrence De Maria
Copyright © Lawrence De Maria 2015
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this
book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
For information, email
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published by St. Austin’s Press
Special thanks to
Dedicated to my wife,
, without whose love, support and faith this book
– and others –
would not have been possible,
and to my sons,
Lawrence and Christopher
Good men, both.
“Mourning Doves are small, graceful birds, common across the continent. The doves form strong pair bonds to raise their young. They have always been heavily hunted, and now developers are savaging their breeding grounds, plowing under nests filled with eggs and young chicks. In North Carolina, where they are also called Turtle Doves, the soft, drawn-out calls of surviving parents for their buried young sound like laments.”
— Ashleigh Harper, from To Bury a Turtle Dove
The old woman was so very tired. She felt as if she could close her eyes and sleep forever. Which she knew was a distinct possibility when one is 88 with a weak heart.
Not that she feared death. Her long life had been one of accomplishment and honors. While she cared little for the honors, she liked the thought that her signature book was now a staple in classrooms around the country. My God, has it been 47 years since it was published! Or was it 48? She could not remember.
It was hard remembering such things at her age. The pills certainly did not help. But they did make her more comfortable, if a bit addled. Her arthritis and various other pains were now bearable. Her eyesight was strong, thanks to cataract surgery that gave her better vision than she had when she was in her 60’s! She had books and cable TV for the BBC crime dramas she loved, and she still enjoyed her food, especially the variety of fresh seafood available, although she ate sparingly.
She stirred in her rocking chair and looked out over the Atlantic Ocean from the deck of her third-floor bedroom. She certainly could stay awake long enough to watch the night arrive. Not the sunset, which would be in the West, on the opposite side of the island. The woman did not give a fig about sunsets. They could be beautiful, of course, and she had seen spectacular sunsets on the West coast of Florida and in the Florida Keys, where she traveled when much younger. But here, on Bald Head Island, just off the coast of North Carolina, the sun set over land. No shimmering golden glow against the clouds, no “green flash” as the sun disappeared (which she had once actually spotted even though some people claimed it was an old wives’ tale), no boozy spectators “hissing” as the sun appeared to drop into the Gulf of Mexico. In her house facing the beach, she loved sunrises, and next to them, watching the Atlantic glimmer, first with fading sunlight and, at the right time of the month, with the moon’s reflection as it rose into the night sky.
She was a familiar sight to beachgoers and passing boaters, as she sat on her deck. It was mid-October, and the air, while unseasonably warm for this time of year, was still brisk, so there were few people on the beach and only an occasional passing boat. She always waved at the boaters, and if they noticed, they invariably waved back. She wondered if any of them knew who she was. She doubted it. She had done everything she could to avoid becoming a tourist attraction, God forbid. Soon, there would not be anyone to wave to her. The tourist season had been over for weeks and the first real cold front would drive the stragglers away, leaving only the island’s few permanent residents, many of them commercial fishermen.
A large sport fishing boat came into her view, very close to shore. The captain must be a good sailor, she thought, since the shoals and sandbars along this stretch of coast could be challenging. But there was little breeze and the sea was comparatively docile. The boat stopped and dropped anchor. Curious. It was late for day fishing and early for night fishing. A man threw a raft over the side and was soon paddling into shore. That was even stranger. The old woman had watched boats for many years and had never once seen someone do that. The man beached the raft and dragged it a few dozen yards onto the sand. Then he walked toward the house.
The old woman heard the sliding door behind her open, and then a familiar voice.
“Time for your meds, honey.”
“So soon, Sandy? It seems like I just took some.”
“These are a new prescription.”
“What are they for?”
“They will help you sleep.”
“I already have sleeping pills.”
“These are a new prescription.”
“Why are there so many?”
“Doctor’s orders. Now be a good girl. Here, I’ll help you. You can take them one at a time. That’s good, honey. Now another one. There we go. Just a few more.”
She disliked taking pills. Some of her medications were so large that she called them “horse pills” and joked that she was thinking of entering the Kentucky Derby. But Sandy knew what was good for her. She had been the old woman’s right arm for several years, ministering to her failing health and keeping her isolated from journalists and even the merely curious who wanted to talk to the famous writer, who valued her privacy above all else. The woman knew about the rumors that she was senile, or worse. On a good day she had most, if not all, of her faculties. But being thought of as mentally challenged had its advantages for someone who wanted to be left alone.
She had been angry at Sandy only once, when her caretaker and friend suggested a meeting with a New York publisher who wanted the woman’s other manuscripts.
“What other manuscripts?” she had asked.
“The ones I found in those trunks you have in storage.”
“Oh, my goodness, Sandy. I wrote that drivel when I was barely out of college. I did not even have any experiences to talk of. Just childish jottings. I thought I burned them. Throw them out.”
“But they may be valuable. At least the publisher thinks so.”
The old woman was stunned.
“You’ve already approached a publisher about them! You had no right, Sandy. What were you thinking? They just want to trade on my name. Those infantile scribbles will make me look like a fool. They will cheapen the one book I want to be remembered for. I won’t have it, I tell you. I won’t have it. I want them destroyed. I will even put it in my will. Nothing I wrote before
must ever see the light of day!”
Sandy apologized, and that was that. Since then, she had been even more solicitous, as if to make up for her mistake. But that was all in the past.
Now, after the old woman managed to down all the pills, she said, “Sandy, are we expecting someone?”
“Why do you ask?”
“A man just came ashore and was walking toward the house.”
“Well, he must have used the beach access path to cut through to the road. I didn’t see anyone. Here, let me help you get dressed for bed.”
The old woman suddenly felt very sleepy. She could hardly keep her eyes open. She did not object.
The woman did not know why she woke up. It was dark, but moonlight streamed through the windows. There was someone in the room. She was suddenly frightened. But why?
“Sandy, is that you?”
A hand switched on her bedside lamp. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust and then she had quite a start. Another woman, also elderly, was standing by the side of her bed, staring at her. It was like looking in a mirror, except the woman’s eyes were brown.
“Who are you?”
Suddenly, Sandy appeared next to the other woman, and pulled her away, shouting “Bessie, what the hell are you doing in here?”
“I just wanted to see her in person. I want to get everything right. Her eyes are blue.”
“Yes, we know. We already have the contact lenses for you.”
“And her skin is darker.”
“A few days sitting in the sun will take care of that. And maybe a little body makeup. Now get out of here and stay on your side of the house until we come for you.”
“All right. All right. You needn’t be so pushy. I had to hear her speak, didn’t I?”
“Do you think there will be a problem with that?”
“No, no. I’m no Meryl Streep, sweetheart, but I’ll get by. I heard enough.”
“Good. Now go to your room.”
“Sure, sure. But I’m sick and tired of being cooped up out of sight. When does she go in that nursing home?”
“A few days. Now, get out of here.”
The woman in bed heard the door shut. She was confused. Who were they talking about?
“Sandy, what is going on? Who was that? Who is Bessie?”
There was no answer and for a moment she thought she was dreaming. Then, another unfamiliar face swam into her vision. It was a man’s face. A cruel face.
“Jesus Christ,” the man snarled. “You said she’d be sleeping!”
Finally, a face she knew loomed above her. Sandy. And she was smiling. The old woman smiled back. It was all right.
“I must have screwed up the dose,” Sandy said.
“That’s fucking great,” the man said. “Now what? They saw each other. Bessie is a pain in the ass. What did she want to hear her voice for? This one here hasn’t spoken in public for years.”
The old woman was shocked at the man’s vulgarity. Who was he, and what were they talking about?
“What difference does it make?” Sandy said. “And who knows? It might be for the best. I never thought about the voice. It doesn’t change anything. You know what you have to do.”
“I’d rather do it when she was asleep,” the man grumbled.
“Just get on with it, for Christ’s sake.”
A hand roughly lifted the old woman’s head and she felt her pillow being removed. The movement was so sudden that she cried out as pain shot through her weak neck muscles.
“No,” she said as her head flopped back on the mattress. “I need my pillow.”
“Coming right up, lady,” the man said.
The pillow came back into view. She was sorry she’d complained. They were probably just fluffing it for her. The man was certainly crude, however. No bedside manners at all. And he smelled of fish. I will tell Sandy to replace him.
The pillow seemed to be coming closer. Then it was pressed firmly against her face. She tried to breathe. She couldn’t. The pressure increased. She did not understand. Her lungs started to burn. Panic pierced her drug-addled brain. For the first time in ages, she felt the beat of her feeble heart. It was pounding. There was a roar in her ears. Her hands flew up to grab the pillow and encountered the arms holding it relentlessly against her mouth and nose. The arms were strong and hairy. She vomited, which only increased her agony, since her mouth and nose were blocked.
Then, mercifully, her heart, starved of oxygen and unused to such exertion, began beating erratically and plunged into a terminal arrhythmia. She lost consciousness, and was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
But the man who murdered her did not let up the pressure for another five minutes.
“That’s enough,” the woman called Sandy said. “Jesus, that’s enough.”
“You said she’d be out like a light,” the man said, breathing heavily. It was hard work holding down the pillow. “I want to be sure. This old biddy is tough.”
He lifted the pillow. The woman’s sightless eyes stared up at him. A greenish-yellow fluid dripped from her mouth.
“Christ, it stinks in here,” he said. “She must have crapped, too.”
“Never mind that. Strip her and then wrap her in the bed sheet with the pillow. I’ll clean up here. Will you need my help getting her to your boat?”
The killer’s 31-foot Bertram rolled gently at anchor 150 feet off the beach behind the house. The craft, no longer in production but still considered one of the finest fishing boats ever made, was his pride and joy. It had cost him a small fortune, which was one reason he got himself involved in this crazy plan. The other reason was standing at the end of the bed giving him orders. He’d never had a woman like her, and suspected he never would. Their relationship was a well-kept secret. He wished it wasn’t. He wanted to climb to the top of “Old Baldy”, the island’s historic lighthouse, and shout that he was sleeping with a woman other men could only dream about, especially the harbor rats he hung out with at the bar at Mojo’s. Someday, if all went well, he would.
“No. I’ve already figured that out.”
He wrapped the corpse and everything else in the bed sheet and carried it out to the deck.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“She don’t weigh much,” the man said, “but I don’t want to carry her down three flights of stairs.”
With that, he unceremoniously dropped his burden off the deck, where it landed with a thud in the sand far below.
“Jesus Christ, Len!”
“What? She don’t care.”
He went downstairs and out the back door. He picked up the body. She really was light. Just skin and bones. The small rubber skiff that he’d used to come ashore lay in the sand at the high-tide mark. He put the body in the skiff and dragged it into the surf, hopped in and picked up a paddle. The water was calm, which is why they chose this particular evening.
Leonard Vole slowed his fishing boat,
She Got the House
, approximately three miles from Bald Head Island. Originally named the
after his third wife, the new name aptly reflected Vole’s reduced circumstances. He changed it immediately after his divorce from the bitch, who somehow was awarded most of his assets — even though she was the one caught screwing their minister in Vole’s pickup. She got the damn pickup, too! Before meeting Sandy, he alternated sleeping on the boat and in a rented room in Southport. He still had the room, but now also spent much of his time in Sandy’s bed. He had not replaced his vehicle. He could walk to the ferry terminal in Southport, and everything he needed for his fishing charter business was available on Bald Head, which except for a few maintenance, fire and police vehicles, did not allow cars. All other land transportation on the miniscule island is limited to modified “golf” carts, small trams, bicycles or foot.