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Muddy Waters by Ellis Quinn

 

Muddy Waters - When reclusive artist Julie Hartfield is found strangled in her boat, Bette is on the case. Chesapeake Cove is packed with tourists excited for the Crab Festival, and finding the murderer will be like searching for lobster in a crab trap. When another victim is found a day later, there seems to be a human shark hidden in the Cove, picking off vulnerable prey.
The victims are connected, Bette’s sure of it, even if she can't figure out how. One woman lived in Chesapeake Cove, the other was visiting for the first time. Then a stranger, discovered in Julie's home, is hiding a dark secret and Detective Marcus is racing to capture the murderer before they strike again. With the Crab Festival looming on the horizon, Bette needs all the help she can get.
She gives safe harbor to a young man in need, and with his help, she's prepared to uncover secrets that could span the globe. But Bette might be heading towards international waters and be in over her head as secrets begin to unfold around her. She can only hope that Detective Marcus can keep her out of hot water long enough to capture a murderer.

 

Muddy Waters by Ellis Quinn Book Chapter One

 

A trombone slide knocked Bette’s hat off. When she stooped to retrieve the hat, the trombonist stooped as well. She and the trombonist knocked heads together and the trombonist’s hat fell at her feet. They picked up each other’s hats, then exchanged them.

The trombonist was a rosy-cheeked high school student, wide eyed behind his glasses. He shouted over the music, “I’m so sorry, Ms. Whaley.”

“My fault for walking too close,” she shouted back. “No harm done. Except when we knocked our heads like coconuts.” She rubbed where they’d knocked, then donned her hat. “We must have looked like the Three Stooges.”

The young trombonist looked around for a third stooge while the rest of the marching band continued playing. Then, mystified, he looked down at Buster at the end of the leather leash. She said, “Well, two of the Three Stooges, anyway.” The trombonist was too young to know who The Three Stooges were.

Now he patted Buster’s head, then backed into the file of musicians, and she tossed a few dollars from her jacket pocket into the old top hat on the cobblestone sidewalk with a little placard that explained how the money raised would go to fund The Reginald G. Crockett High School’s marching band trip to the Marching Band Nationals in Savannah.

The kids all smiled at her around their instruments, nodded thanks, and the trombonist counted himself back in, cheeks puffing out as he found his cue. A cute trumpeter at his side elbowed him, and they tried not laughing while they blew their horns on When the Saints Go Marching In, a song associated with New Orleans; a city where they boiled crabs instead of steaming.

The high school band played on Chesapeake Cove’s crowded Main Street sidewalk, out front of Hilda’s Gilded Lily gift shop. The entire town had been transformed. Red, white, and blue banners hung over the street from light pole to light pole, and matching bunting decorated the windows of the shops. It was the weekend of the Chesapeake Cove Crab Festival, running from Wednesday afternoon to Sunday night.

The town center was packed like sardines, and the town blockaded vehicle traffic from Main, so the roadway bustled with tourists, and vendors, and buskers. The town population ballooned from 1,200 to almost 10,000 if you included all the hotel rooms and rentals and B&B and AirBnB occupancies, and that all the people with summer homes were in town, too, most of them bringing guests.

Bette waded through the busy crowd and followed the flow until Madsen Street. The crowd thinned, but ahead she saw the doorway of The Steaming Bean teeming with coffee drinkers and biscuit eaters. Tourists loitered out front, drinking paper cups of coffee and munching baked goods held in napkins; there were no empty seats in Cherry’s front patio; a lineup of eight deep ran from the propped open front door.

“Holy Hannah,” she sighed, and queued up as number nine.

The line moved quick and once she stood waiting indoors, she saw why. Cherry and Terry worked double-time behind the counter, and Cherry had hired extra help. At least six staff bustled, and Cherry had it all under control.

A woman around Bette’s age collected her coffee and croissant from Cherry, turned to walk deeper into the café, then saw someone she knew sitting at the frontmost table. First thing Bette noticed about the woman were her boots. She coveted them. The most beautiful shade of brown leather. The supple leather looked burnished and brass zippers ran the side. A thin brass ring dangled from the zipper’s pull. Buster’s colors, his fur and eyes. Probably why she liked them so much.

The women at the table and the woman with the boots noticed Buster now, cocked their heads and saying Aww and waving at him. Bette dipped down to pat his head and show them what a good boy he was. Buster was patient and well-mannered and great in stores and cafés. He would sit at her side, never pull on the lead, and kept his nose out of other people’s crotches. Good manners, indeed.

The woman with the boots was saying to the women she knew she was sorry she hadn’t been around much, and one of the other women was saying how they knew she was a recluse, anyway, and all she wanted to do was create. The woman with the boots said, “It’s true, I know I am,” and they all laughed.

It hit Bette who the woman with the boots was. Now she straightened her posture. It was Julie Hartfield, the artist Steven Dawson had told her about. The one she’d intended to meet up with and see if she could strike up a friendship. She’d been painting for a few weeks now, and feedback had been positive. Pris hadn’t started a watercolor group yet, but it would be on its way soon, she imagined.

Bette waited to interject herself in the conversation but the line shifted forward. Still, she could overhear their talk. Julie was telling the women seated at the table how she was excited to surprise her husband. “Brian travels so much for work, but he’s coming home this weekend.” Julie had plans to visit her sister, but they fell through and her husband didn’t know it yet. They were going to spend the weekend together after all. “He’s going to be shocked,” she said. “I can’t wait.”

Cherry came around from behind the counter now, holding an enormous paper bag and a coffee cup. Came directly to Bette, leaned in for a cheek kiss. Both sides, Bette saying, “You must be run off your feet.”

“I’ll take it,” Cherry said. “After the last few weeks, the Bean needs to play catch up.”

Yes, after all that terrible business with Cherry accused of murder and The Steaming Bean closed for a few days. Cherry presented the coffee to Bette.

“For me?”

“Lots of cream and lots of sugar, Bette. The way you like it.”

“You didn’t have to, I don’t mind waiting in line,” she said, but Cherry rolled her eyes, not wanting to hear about it, withdrawing from the pocket on her apron a huge baked cookie in the shape of a dog bone.

Cherry stooped, said to Bette, “Okay if Buster gets it?”

“Now he’s seen it, good luck trying to get him to forget about it,” she said and laughed. “Sure, go ahead. He’d love it.”

Buster assumed his treat position: sitting upright, chest thrust out, head back in a regal pose. His eyes went half-lidded like he was too proud to accept treats, but if you insisted . . . He took the home-baked treat from Cherry and held it in his mouth, cookie ends protruding out both sides of his snout, his lips draped over them.

Cherry laughed and ruffled his head. “I gotta get back to work. We’ll catch up soon,” she said, and handed Bette the bag.

“This is a lot of food,” Bette said, taking the heavy bag and holding it to her chest.

“I have sandwiches in there for you and Steven. There’s one for Pris, too, if you can drop it off to her on your way to the marina.”

“Pris is going to rile up an appetite today working the dunk tank,” Bette said.

“Say hi to her, and give Steven my best, too,” Cherry said. Then backing away, added: “I packed your favorite in there,” nodding to the bag Bette held at her chest.

“No . . . Browned Butter Brownies?”

“With toasted honey-walnuts.”

“You’re the best, Cherry.”

Bette turned as Cherry trotted back behind the counter and then looked to walk Buster past Julie as an icebreaker. But Julie sat at the table with the other women now, settled in and engaged in conversation. It would be too awkward to introduce herself, so it would have to wait till another time.

The lineup to order was shorter now, though people still congregated out front and the patio had no seating. A family approached the front door as she exited, and Bette held it open for a man and his wife and their little boy who admired Buster. “Can I pet your doggy?”

“He’d love it if you do,” Bette said, and watched as the little lad tapped Buster on the nose, the dog biscuit still protruding on either side of his mouth.

The man laughed and said, “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Buster Crab.”

“Crab, huh? Is he the mascot of the Crab Festival?”

“He’d like to think he is,” she said.

The man chuckled, then ushered his wife and boy ahead.

But now in the foyer, the man saw the lineup that was only about four customers deep. There were no empty tables. Julie still sat up front talking to her friends and wouldn’t have got a seat if she hadn’t run into people she knew.

The man abruptly turned, putting his hand on his wife’s waist, leading her back to the door. He said, “Come on, folks, we’ll try somewhere that’s maybe not so busy.”

Bette still stood with the door open, and watched as they left, smiling and nodding at them. She said, “You should’ve seen it fifteen minutes ago.”

 
Twin stern drive Mercury V8 motors, ivory cream gel coat on the hull, Garmin radar, bow thruster, silver oak trim, 37 feet long with the swim platform; a tremendous purchase for a young person.

Steven Dawson loved his new speedboat.

From the marina, he toured Bette and Buster northward, far as the Toppehannock River. They circled the wide estuary, then went deeper into the Bay. They headed straight south, and he took her to see Bloodsworth Island because she asked him to. Some friends of hers in high school claimed they’d snuck on the island one time, which was a big no-no. The island was restricted because of unexploded military ordinance and patrolled by the Navy. Steven drove through the Surface Danger Zone, which was permitted, and they got close to the island’s notorious western shore, then looped around the Holland Strait, going in a figure-eight near Smith Island before coming up north again to the Hooper Islands. Buster Crab rode most of the way planted on the bow seats, snout up and proud, ears flapping, eyes squinted, loving every minute.

At one o’clock they were starving. The day was chilly but bright enough they could sit in the sun and not be too cold. Steven unfolded the stowaway table and kicked out the support leg, gesturing like a boat show model showing off all the boat’s features. Bette brought out the paper lunch bag Cherry packed, put it on the table and withdrew the contents. Two fat homemade sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. Ham and turkey, thick cheddar, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and no onions. The brownies she would kill for, plus two more bone-shaped biscuits for Buster. Steven supplied the pop. Two bottles of cream soda that he popped the tops off with a steel opener and plugged long straws into. Motor shut down, they bobbed on the waves near the shore, about fifteen minutes south of Chesapeake Cove.

Near to where they bobbed, and extending out from the shore by a series of steel buildings, pilings jabbed out of the water like denuded trees in a swamp, and between these posts, lines extended, the lines supported by bright buoys like beach balls, in blue or red or white or orange. Long black buoys barricaded the perimeter so no hotshots in speedboats or jet-skis could bomb through.

She said to Steven, “What do you suppose that is?”

“It’s a grow-out.”

“What’s a grow-out?”

“An oyster farm. They harvest gametes from tetroploids and eggs from diploids and”—he interlaced his fingers—“bring them together to make a triploid. They have huge tanks of custom algae they grow and the triploids feed off that until they grow an eye-spot, then they put them on substrate . . .”

“I wish I knew this when Vance was here. He’d absolutely love this.”

“When he’s here next, let me know. I can probably get him in for a tour.”

“He’d love it. Thanks, Steven. So what’s the grow-out?”

“They introduce the oysters to Chesapeake water in those buildings and they stay there for a month while they grow their shells, then it’s three more months in that building.” He pointed to the steel warehouse on the farthest left. “Then it’s time for the grown up water.”

“And that’s the grow-out.”

“You got it. They’re in baskets below those buoys and the flowing water helps them develop deep cups in their shells.”

Bette said, “Sounds like it’s— What’s that thing when something can be done over and over again. Sustainable.”

“It’s sustainable.”

“Have you ever tried the farmed ones? They as good as wild?”

Steven shrugged and said, “I’ve tried em. I couldn’t tell the difference. They were tasty as all get out. Brinier even, maybe. It’s all in how you prepare em. And if the growing conditions are the same as wild, grown in the same water, what could be much different? Plus, here’s the thing: the aquaculture oysters go from brood stock to oyster in less than half the time in the wild.”

Bette nodded, chewed and swallowed. “Aquaculture. Do you know Donovan McNeal?”

“Yes, I do, Bette, we were all together at Royce Murdoch’s memorial,” Steven said, looking off to the water, the wind tossing his thick mop of dark hair.

“That’s right. Is he involved?” Pris and Cherry said Donovan had been looking to get into aquaculture as well as crabbing.

Steven shrugged. “Mostly his brother.” He looked down, then away.

“Oh, really,” she said and smiled.

Now he looked at her, lips pursed, brow puzzled. “What?”

Now she shrugged, acted nonchalant. “I’ve never met Donovan’s brother. What does he look like? Name’s Adam, right?”

“Yeah, he looks like his brother, Donovan, I guess. A little. Softer, less . . .”

“Pumped up?”

“No, he’s pretty pumped up. He keeps in good shape.”

Her smile widened, and she hid it by stuffing the last bite of her sandwich in her mouth.

Steven asked, “What’s so funny?”

“Not a thing’s funny,” she said, speaking with a mouthful of food hidden behind her hand. She snuffled laughter.

“I know what you’re getting at, and you can imagine all you want, Bette.”

“Is he the one?” she said, still hiding a stuffed mouth behind her hand. “You can tell me.”

Steven looked sideways for a moment, finishing his own sandwich, expression amused, but eyes turned down. She might have figured it out: Steven’s secret boyfriend could be Donovan McNeal’s brother. Now she had to get her eyes on this guy Adam McNeal.

Steven said, “The best part about a secret boyfriend, Bette, is the part where he’s a secret.”

“You know, your subconscious brain isn’t always so subconscious. Let’s itself out in little leaks.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, I don’t know, say I had certain feelings for somebody. Let’s say—”

“Marcus?”

She shook her head, flabbergasted. “I don’t have feelings for Marcus.”

Steven grinned. “This is all imaginary, anyway, Bette.”

She looked across the table at him. Jaw set firm, she muttered, “Say it’s Marcus then.”

Steven was still amused. “This is your game. We’re playing by your rules.”

“Touché,” she said. “But I don’t have feelings for Marcus.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” His smile was smug.

“Stop it.”

“You stop it.”

She scowled at him again. He was taking the fun out of it.

Now Steven was on a roll. “Okay, so what you’re saying is: say you had a crush on, oh, I don’t know, maybe somebody like, I don’t know . . . Marcus, and say you got a new boat, and you drove it into the Bay with a friend and nobody knew you had this crush on Marcus but maybe it was time to stop for lunch, and, hey, wouldn’t it be nice to stop out in the Bay across from, like, the police station. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Something like that.” She tossed an errant tomato slice in her mouth and crossed her arms, trying her best not to look petulant.

“And then you’d say— Hey, I know that boat.”

“Why would I say that?”

Stephen pointed over her shoulder toward shore. “No, that boat,” he said.

She swiveled where she sat and looked toward shore. A small cabin cruiser, maybe twenty-five feet, nosed up and tilted on the sandy beach a few hundred yards to the north of the oyster farm. The sight reminded her of the night they’d found Donovan McNeal’s Miss Connie he’d loaned to Royce Murdoch nosed up on a sand bar in the Toppehannock River. It had been Bucky Snead aboard the boat that night, harmless old Bucky. But with just the three of them out in the middle of nowhere—she and Aunt Pris and Cherry—finding a mysterious boat, whoever was onboard, appeared to be a great danger to them. The sense of danger returned. She huddled into her cardigan and said, “Looks strange the way it’s abandoned there. Whose boat is it?”

Steven said, “Remember last week when I saw you painting on the public beach?”

“I remember.”

“I mentioned Julie Hartfield. That’s Julie’s boat.”

Now she joined Steven, the two of them standing at his boat’s controls, looking out over the visor. “I just saw her this morning,” Bette said. “She was at Cherry’s café. I was going to talk to her, but she was busy.”

“The whole town’s busy,” Steven said.

“Cherry was run off her feet.”

Steven shielded his concerned eyes from the sun with a hand at his brow. “I don’t see anyone. Maybe Julie’s gone for help.”

“Do you have ropes? Maybe we can tug her back in the water.”

“I don’t have long enough ropes. Hopefully she will.”

“This old hunk of junk have enough horsepower?” she said, patting the gunwale, trying to lighten them both up.

“More than enough,” he said, packing up their lunch wrappers and stuffing them in the paper bag. He scrunched it into a ball, tossed it in the trash, turned the key and got his motor rumbling. This was a new Steven, and she liked this one, too. All business, all purpose. Shades of his father showing through.

When they were closer, Steven cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered out Julie’s name. Did it three times, but there was no sign of any life at the boat or in the marshy grass beyond.

Steven said, “I better go take a look.”

Bette said, “I guess you should,” and as Steven rifled through a storage cabinet, pulling out a pair of hip waders, she added: “Although . . .”

Steven sat one of the boat’s seats, shoving his legs into the hip waders while Buster jumped up, excited by this change of events. Buster thought it was time to go swimming, and he was all in. Steven said, “Although what?”

“I know Julie was excited about her husband coming home.”

“Oh, yeah?” he said, standing up now and snapping the elastic suspenders in place over his shoulders. “Can you get us in close?”

“I can do that,” she said, assuming her spot at the boat’s controls. She brought the motor to life and headed closer to Julie’s boat at a slow speed.

Steven said, “So what does that mean?”

“You know, it sounded like she missed him . . .”

“You don’t want to me to interrupt their afternoon tryst?” he said and smiled. “Think they’re out having a picnic in the grass or something where no one can see them?”

“Would you like it? You and Mr. Aquaculture getting interrupted?”

“About as much as you and Marcus,” he said, climbing now onto the prow of the boat, enjoying a friendly laugh to himself at her expense.

She shouted over the visor, “Maybe I’d like to see top speed on your fancy boat right now, you better find something to hold on to real quick.”

“You better not,” he said.

Buster was at her side, and she patted his head as she got the boat closer. Steven shouted Julie’s name again, but there was still no response. She brought the boat to an idle, and Steven jumped into the water.

“You want to help him, don’t you?” she said to Buster, who fidgeted at her side. “I know you’re desperate, go on then, good boy.”

That was all Buster needed to hear, jumping off the gunwale, and splashing in the Bay. He circled around the front of the boat and joined Steven, both of them tromping through the sparkling water to the shore.

She watched as Buster ran up and down the beach and then settled to sit attentively at the side of Julie’s boat as Steven climbed aboard. Bette went onto the prow and waited.

Steven checked the boat’s controls, walked around the back deck, then she saw him disappear into the cabin. Almost immediately he backed out again, and when he turned her way, she could see his face had gone ashen.

She shouted, “What is it?”

“I think you better call Marcus.”

“You’re not funny,” she said.

“No, Bette, call Marcus. Call the police.”

“Is something wrong?”

Steven nodded.

“Oh, no. What is it?”

“There is somebody on board.”

Dread tightened her scalp, and her fingers went numb. “You can’t be serious. Are they . . .” She didn’t want to say it. Said instead: “Alive?”

He shook his head no. She withdrew her phone from her pocket, dialed Marcus’s number and while it was ringing, said to Steven, “Is the somebody wearing knee-high brown leather boots?”

Steven nodded again.

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