Black Rock Bay, page 7
“People say Mia had something to do with it.” It wasn’t exactly a stab in the dark. Izzy could see how the leap could be made.
“Police ruled it a suicide.” Patty lifted one shoulder, a casual shrug. But her eyes were sharp. “Case closed.”
They called it a suicide pact. “Then no need to ask questions about Mia, right?”
Patty rocked the glass onto its edge. “You should hear the conspiracies about that night, sugar.”
“Some think it was an artist who went nuts,” Patty said, deftly dodging ones about Mia that Izzy knew must exist. “Was obsessed with the Bell girl. Ended up killing the boyfriend, then her. Started on Mia but chickened out or something.”
Wait. Izzy leaned forward. That was a hell of a lot different from people thinking Mia talked them into it. That’s where Izzy had thought that was heading.
“People say it was murder, not suicide? That’s what you’re saying?”
“You can’t blame ’em for talking, Detective,” Patty dodged. “There’s not much else to do out here.”
“Did you tell this to Twist?”
Patty’s shoulders went taut as she straightened. Insulted. “Didn’t have to. He already knew it.”
“He thought an artist killed them?”
“Nah,” Patty drawled out. “He realized quickly only the kooks believe that one. There weren’t any artists that fit the bill at the time it all went down.”
“So . . . ?”
“He was trying to be slick about it.” Patty’s eyes narrowed, and Izzy swallowed her frustration. The woman could answer the questions like a professional, giving just enough to seem like she was telling Izzy something but not nearly enough to make sense.
Irritation must have flashed on Izzy’s face, because a smirk teased at the corners of Patty’s lips. “All right, Detective, calm down. You’ll get your money’s worth.”
Izzy remained impassive, not even hinting at the fact that she already had. Now they had a better idea what Twist had been looking into on the island.
Patty swallowed the last of her drink before setting it aside and leaning forward on her crossed arms. “All right, look. He was asking everyone about suicide, okay—that’s not unusual for us. We get someone out here every once in a while, looking to do some book or school assignment on isolation and depression and all that jazz.
“But.” Patty paused, her tongue darting out to lick at her lip, a nervous gesture she’d done enough times to work away at the blue gloss there. “He was really investigating that night. Those kids’ deaths. Monroe Bell and Asher Lowe. And Mia, of course. You could tell by the way he wouldn’t get really interested until someone brought them up.”
And with that, all the pieces from the day began to slot themselves together, starting with Mia recognizing Twist. If he’d been investigating the suicide pact, it made sense that he’d try to scope her out first. Why hadn’t he talked to her at all, though?
Because. Because. Part of Izzy shied away from the thought, but she couldn’t. Because he thought Mia had killed the others.
“Only the kooks think an artist went crazy and killed Monroe and Asher,” Izzy said, slowly. Patty was a hawk, watching the question form behind Izzy’s lips. “So what does everyone else think happened at the lighthouse?”
The quick flick of Patty’s eyes in Mia’s direction confirmed the theory. “That girl has scars from that night.”
Maybe that was true. But that girl was alive. The same couldn’t be said about Asher Lowe and Monroe Bell.
And now the reporter who, if Patty were to be believed, had apparently been investigating those deaths had turned up in the bay, without ID, looking for all the world like a suicide.
Her thoughts from earlier circled back. If it was a homicide, the killer was either very lucky or very smart. They knew how to hide evidence.
She thought about how Mia had torn across the meadow toward the woods, how Izzy had found her, silent and still, eerie almost, her face pale in the thin light provided by Izzy’s phone. How she hadn’t really met Izzy’s eyes until they’d been back to civilization, how her hand had shaken when she’d stripped off her gloves.
That was what guilt looked like.
Izzy didn’t want to let herself start questioning Mia—trust and loyalty were the foundations of a solid partnership, and it was dangerous to create cracks in that for no reason. But what did Izzy really know about the woman? Not much.
Mia always kept to herself, dodging out on station happy hours and softball leagues. Izzy admired her quiet competence, but beyond the very basic facts, the woman was a mystery.
That didn’t have to mean anything. A lot of people liked their privacy, liked separating their personal lives from their jobs. But little moments from the day stood out in sharp relief under the harsh light of this new information.
That pause in the hallway, Mia’s eyes latching onto that photograph. The quick acceptance of Sammy’s suicide theory. The tic Mia had of stroking her thumb over her left wrist. The dip in her voice when mentioning the lighthouse.
I didn’t leave a suicide note, either.
There was a question that Izzy had earlier refused to let properly form but couldn’t deny any longer.
Was the reason Mia hadn’t left a suicide note because she’d always known she’d come out of the lighthouse alive?
“Mia.” Cash didn’t say her name like a prayer or a plea. This was accusation, annoyance, and sixteen years of familiarity that couldn’t be erased by fifteen years of silence.
He had come over to her booth, though. Approached her despite the way she hadn’t said goodbye before she’d left, hadn’t answered his calls in the weeks following.
“Cash,” she said, meeting his eyes because she was never one to play coy.
He watched her closely. “What are you . . . ?” That’s when the realization struck, and something that looked like relief flashed quick as lightning across his face. “The reporter.”
The word rippled across the room, a pebble dropped in a lake that had been still. Eyes shifted and bodies leaned, ever so slightly, toward her and Cash.
It wasn’t like she was going to confirm it, so she just smiled a little and let that be answer enough.
He grinned, that slow, easy one that used to let loose butterflies in her belly. For a heartbeat, she was disoriented, off-balance. Here was the boy in that photo, laughing into the camera. But gone was the baby fat. That jawline had sharpened and was now dusted with scruff; his shoulders had filled out, but his hips had stayed narrow.
“Let me get you a drink?” Cash finally said when the silence between them stretched to awkward. “Come on.”
He walked away without waiting for her.
When Mia had been a teenager, she’d enjoyed the way Cash, a skilled conductor, directed those around him, bodies becoming the music that bent to his will. As a thirty-one-year-old woman, she found it less than appealing.
But he was already four steps ahead, already at the bar. Once he nodded back toward her, Max got the message and reached for the Eagle Rare one more time. Her ulcer flared, but she ignored it.
Mia spared one more look toward where Izzy was attempting to win over Patty Masterson, before she followed Cash to a booth on the other side of the room.
Sliding in across from him, she let her eyes trace over his face. Here was a stranger she knew so well and didn’t know at all.
“I should call you Mr. Mayor, I guess,” she finally said. Although she hadn’t been back to the island, Mama still told her things.
There was no mockery intended, but he grimaced anyway. “Maura Chapman took over after Dad retired, but stepped down a few years back.”
“A Bishop back in charge,” Mia said. “Seems right.”
“Not much changed since you left.”
Cash hadn’t bought a drink for himself, so he had nothing to occupy his hands.
Mia loved hands; they revealed so much. They fidgeted, they stilled, they picked and plucked, they covered mouths and scratched at scabs. So many tells.
Cash’s were lain flat on the table, unnatural in both their position and lack of movement. If he was relaxed, he’d be tapping the wood, his knuckles bent and loose. There was stress in those hands. She wondered if it was just from seeing her again. She wondered if he’d expected her.
“I wouldn’t say that.” Mia took a swig of her drink before looking back at him beneath her lashes. Not trying to flirt but not opposed to getting information, either. “You’ve grown.”
“Me? You’re the big shot now,” Cash said without bite. “Detective and everything. Could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard you were joining the police force.”
The news must have spread like wildfire. She hadn’t asked Mama what the gossip had been like, and Mama hadn’t talked about it. But the town’s armchair psychiatrists had probably had a field day. “I enjoy it.”
“Wouldn’t have pegged you for the type, Mia Mackenzie.” His smile was genuine, and she was once again off-balance, back in that lookout tower of the lighthouse, their legs entangled, their hips flush against each other’s. I love you to the moon, Mia Mackenzie.
“What type would you have pegged me for, Cash Montgomery?” she bantered back, because it cost nothing.
He held up his palms. “Don’t get feisty on me,” he said with a laugh. “I knew you’d take over the world. Just didn’t think you’d want to live in blood and guts every day.”
Mia studied him. This time he’d dropped his hands to his lap, hiding them, which was a shame. But there were other ways to tell what a person was thinking. Like the worry that creased the lines of his face, or his careful pauses between words.
“It’s more about people, actually, than blood and guts,” she said, rubbing the rim of her empty glass. She had her own tells. “I tend to work cases that others have given up on.”
“Like cold cases?” he asked. “That must be a challenge.”
“Can be,” she said. “Any hard evidence is gone or useless, usually.”
Cash leaned forward, his biceps pressing against the table. “So . . . it becomes about people then?”
Mia shrugged her agreement. “You talk to friends, neighbors, family. Most don’t remember anything, but every once in a while, they do.”
It took only one moment, one memory, one face in the crowd that shouldn’t have been there, one strange visit that was written off because it was only a tiny piece in a larger puzzle. The answers were there, they were. You just had to find them.
“Sounds like a lot of grunt work.”
“It is.” Tedious with short bursts of excitement is how she could best describe it. But there was something deeply satisfying there as well, something that, if she were forced to admit it, had nothing to do with helping victims’ families find peace. The crimes were puzzles, the hard kind, the field of wheat or a bluebird sky that others tended to give up on.
The brain always saw the small differences, the curves and divots, the corner pieces, the slight change in shade. It’s just that most people have grown so used to tossing those details out that even when they try to look, even when they know what to look for, they can’t find them.
She didn’t know what it said about her that she’d never learned how not to see them.
Like the phone call Brandon overheard. Or when Cash’s expression had flickered into anxiety, instead of surprise or anger. Or the way the figure in the woods had paused, just slightly, when Mia had said Asher’s name.
Each piece of the puzzle she collected, ran her fingers along their uneven edges, tried to figure out where they’d fit even though all of them looked the same right now.
Cash was watching her closely, quiet, until he realized she wasn’t going to continue further. “The reporter’s not exactly a cold case.”
There was something too casual in his voice, the disinterest too practiced to be real.
“Like anyone here would talk to a mainland cop,” she said. “My chief isn’t stupid.”
Cash laughed, and here was that boy again, young and carefree. His entire body relaxed into the amusement. “That’s fair.”
Mia chewed on the inside of her cheek to suppress a smile. There were times she missed being ornery for no other reason than because she lived on a tiny island in the middle of a bay in Maine.
“The strategy is the same, you know?” Mia said, not sure why she wanted to make the point. But part of her wanted Cash a little on edge, a little sloppy, a little nervous. “People.”
She made a show of glancing around the bar. Here on this island where everyone knew each other’s secrets, all she would need to do was ask the right questions.
A muscle twitched in Cash’s jaw. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” he said, something like a warning sitting behind the friendly words.
Before he could say anything else, the jukebox switched over. Their eyes met, and they were back in that summer, two stupid kids who thought there was just enough irony in “Love Is a Battlefield” to make it their song.
Mia smoothed her thumb along the scar at her wrist. “Where were you that night?”
Cash blinked, sat back. “When the reporter disappeared?”
She should say yes. She needed to know that more than what she had been asking, needed to focus on the case, the reason she was here.
“The night Asher died,” she corrected instead. Maybe it was the three glasses of bourbon.
His lips parted, perhaps a start to something, but in the end he simply shook his head.
“I don’t remember any of it,” Mia answered the unspoken question. “I don’t remember any of that day.”
He inhaled at that. “Nothing?” It was stripped clean of any accusation, curious and probing but not threaded with disbelief.
“The last thing that’s clear is the evening before,” she said slowly. She’d never had any interest in telling her side of the story. It wasn’t one she could give, anyway, since the memories had never stuck. Letting the gossips talk always seemed preferable to that simple admission. But that’s when she’d thought she’d never be back on St. Lucy’s. And here she was. “We snuck out. You brought whiskey.”
“It was just the two of us,” Cash said.
Even fifteen years later, that memory was there, clear. Smooth rocks and even smoother liquor. Searching tongues and roaming fingers. The solid weight of a boy on top of her, with the air cool against her skin.
But then everything went blank. No matter how many times she’d tried to probe the darkest recesses. Eventually she’d given up.
Some things were meant to be forgotten.
“You weren’t at the lighthouse, though,” Mia said. During a summer where she and Cash had been inseparable, it seemed almost inconceivable to her that he hadn’t been there. “The night he—they—died.”
“I was grounded,” Cash said, running a hand through his hair. “God, Mia, don’t you know how many times I’ve wished I had gone with you guys? How many times I’ve asked myself if I could have stopped it?”
She studied him. “Did you ever . . . ?”
“No.” The denial was harsh, leaving no room for equivocation. “I never suspected you’d do anything like that.”
The “you” was like a brand, hot and searing against her skin, a pain so sharp it brought reality into focus. The few times she’d thought about that night, she’d always put distance between herself and what happened. They’d killed themselves.
She pressed her lips together. Their song had long faded into a one-hit wonder from a few years back, and Cash was a stranger once more.
He sighed and glanced at his watch. “Listen, I better go. But be careful, okay, Mia Mackenzie?”
He didn’t have to go. He’d just come in. But ever since he’d caught her eye, he’d wanted to leave. She could see it in the way he’d kept his body angled toward the exit.
As he stood, she thought of something. “Oh, Cash.”
He paused, his long, lanky body still slightly crouched from his inelegant slide out of the booth. “Yeah?”
“Did you ever chat with him?” she asked. It was unofficial, how she was doing this, but she had him here, slightly off guard. She’d take it. “The reporter. Did he try to interview you?”
Cash blinked, a long, slow sweep of lashes against his cheeks. “Can’t say I ever talked to the man.”
She nodded and shrugged, the gesture conveying a nonchalant thought I’d ask. But she was watching his hands.
They had curled into fists at his sides.
Izzy was quiet on the walk home, and Mia would have been happy to leave her to her thoughts, but the woman also kept stealing sidelong glances, her eyes darting back to the snow when caught.
“Spill,” Mia finally prodded. Patty must have told her about the rumors.
“Did you ever consider . . . ?” Her voice was so hesitant, so unlike Izzy. Mia huddled further into the warmth of her jacket, braced. Izzy paused, huffed out a breath as if gearing up for something, then really and fully looked over at Mia. “Did you ever consider it wasn’t suicide?”
Mia’s boot caught against the snow, but Izzy’s quick hand at her elbow kept her from falling. “What?”
“Something Patty said . . .”
Right. The rumors. Mia kept walking, and Izzy’s hand fell away. “That crazy artist conspiracy theory.”
“Yeah, Patty said it didn’t hold water,” Izzy said. “But. Okay, let me ask you something. You didn’t leave a suicide note, right?”
Mia nodded, though she knew Izzy didn’t need it confirmed. She wouldn’t have forgotten that detail.
“Did you ever think about . . . ?”
Killing yourself. That was the unspoken question everyone asked. It was the one that played in her head as she’d searched for a suicide note. Had something changed so drastically from the night before? When she’d kissed Cash while lain out beneath the stars on the cool pebbles of the beach?