When arrogant media magnate Chase Prescott is nearly killed by a box of cyanide-laced candy, he dials his long-ago lover, retired newshound Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins, with a simple request: He’ll assemble all the suspects if Henrie O will kindly point out the would-be murderer.
It’s a case—her first—that fills Henrie O with grave misgivings, especially when she arrives on Chase’s private island off the South Carolina coast to meet the players in this deadly drama. Among Prescott’s unstable young wife, his sullen stepson, and his toady of a secretary, she has trouble narrowing the field of suspects—even when a second attempt is made on Chase’s life. As Henrie O unearths a will and fascinating new evidence, a killer hurricane sweeps up from Cuba, threatening to maroon them in this vacation hell . . . where the trappings of luxury are put to lethal use and the secrets of the past have the power to engulf them all.
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I flew to St. Louis the next day, then drove to Deny Hills, my present fairly permanent residence. I kept thinking of mother and daughter reunited, the saccharine interloper vanquished. In contrast, how fortunate I was in my life, even though I was now a widow. My relationship with my own daughter, Emily, is strong and loving, and I take great delight in Emily’s family. For myself, I’d spent more than fifty years as a reporter, enjoying every minute. Those days are behind me now, but I face new challenges every day. I welcome them.
My life is full. And happy.
I was glad to be back, suddenly eager to get to work on my new book. I hurried inside the house. I was just unzipping my suitcase when the phone rang. I reached for it with no hesitation.
“My dear, it’s good to hear your voice.”
That was all Chase said. He didn’t: identify himself. He didn’t need to. Even after all these years I recognized that confident, assertive voice. Truth to tell, I would know it anywhere this side of the grave. Still, it was characteristic of Chase to assume he would instantly be known, characteristic of that fine, careless arrogance that had vaulted him to immense wealth and power.
I didn’t answer.
“Henrie, please hear me out.” There was a faint sound that might have been the ghost of laughter. “Or should I call you Henrie O?”
That caught my attention as nothing else could have. It argued knowledge of me, Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins, long past the time we’d shared.
“Hello, Chase.” I said it pleasantly and evenly, as though we had parted the day before, not four decades before. I heard my own voice, controlled and noncommittal, with a sudden sense of inevitability. Subconsciously I had, for more than half a lifetime, expected this call. “What do you want?”
That drew a familiar bark of laughter. “God, you never change, do you?”
I didn’t contradict him. But, of course, I had. The young woman he recalled was almost lost in the mists of memory, and those particular memories I had no intention of resurrecting. The reckless young reporter whom Chase had known so well was now a woman who had spent five decades covering fires, disasters, wars, revolutions, murders, and public scandals.
“What do you want?” It wasn’t quite a challenge, but it came near.
He was silent. That was unexpected. Chase with nothing to say? Had the glaciers melted? The sun turned back in its orbit?
Finally, grudgingly, he spoke in a troubled tone I’d never imagined hearing from Chase. “Henrie O”—and there was no hint of laughter now, there was only a naked, helpless honesty—“Henrie O, I need your help.”
I wanted to put down that telephone as if the call had never come. I wanted to return to my life as I had lived it for so long. But I continued to hold the receiver in a tight grip. Finally, as reluctantly as he had spoken, I answered. It was the answer that had been foreordained more than forty years before.
I took time to glance at my mail and substitute fresh clothes for soiled ones. Before I closed the suitcase, I took out the two framed photographs I always carry with me. I glanced at the picture of my late husband, Richard, and wished that he was here now, with his grave thoughtfulness and quick, steadying humor. It was Richard who had first called me Henrie O. He claimed I packed more twists and surprises into a single day than O. Henry ever did in a short story. The studio portrait of my daughter was recent, and it captured Emily’s beauty, glossy ebony hair, vivid aquamarine eyes, a finely boned face. Emily—the delight of my life. I looked from one familiar, beloved face to the other, then placed the photographs on my bed and closed the suitcase. I called Emily’s home in the Rio Grande valley and left the message that I would be gone for another week, visiting a friend in South Carolina. Then I was ready to leave. It was easy enough, physically, simply to turn around, pick up the bags, and head back toward St. Louis and the airport. Chase had already made a reservation for me at the Marriott there, where the ticket for tomorrow’s flight awaited me.
The rental car smelled like stale cigars. I had all the windows down despite the late-afternoon August heat and humidity-sodden air. I hadn’t been to the South Carolina Low Country in some: years. Not, in fact, since 1979 when I’d covered the aftermath of Hurricane David, which had left 78 dead and caused nearly half a billion dollars in damages. Hurricane Hugo had killed 21 when it struck a decade later. Worse was to come. The most devastating natural disaster in United States history was Hurricane Andrew. Striking in the early morning hours of late August 1992, this ferocious storm killed 38 while cutting a swath of destruction across the southern tip of Florida, obliterating 25,000 homes and causing $20 billion in damages and another $10 billion in clean-up costs. Experts had long feared that a hurricane on this scale would wreak havoc along the heavily populated corridor running from the tip of Florida all the way to Washington, D.C., but forecasting has become so expert that evacuation measures worked well in saving lives.
I glanced down at the sheet containing directions. I’d received the sheet in a Federal Express packet that morning at the hotel. My flights had been uneventful, St. Louis to Atlanta, Atlanta to Charleston. I’d had plenty of time to refuse to undertake excursions down memory lane and to speculate about what lay ahead. The directions I’d been sent showed the route to follow, but they shed no light on what to expect at journey’s end. Simply a two-sentence note in Chase’s unmistakable, backward-slanted handwriting:
You’ve always had an uncanny ability to sniff out the truth, Henrie O. I’m counting on you. Chase.
I fiddled with the static-ridden radio, caught the latest news—cesspool politics dominated the election with heated charges and countercharges over crime and welfare issues; more Americans out of work as Labor Day approached; Tropical Storm Derek churned toward the Caribbean, picking up speed, and was predicted to reach hurricane status by tomorrow—and enjoyed the occasional glimpse of herons and snowy egrets in patches of lush marsh. Once off the interstate I was grateful for the map as I followed first one, then another and another and another pine-shrouded blacktop, each more distant from habitation, more remote. I almost missed the final turnoff, but at the last minute braked and wheeled to my right into Coffin Point Lane. Gray dust swirled up from beneath my wheels. I blinked and coughed. This track could scarcely count as a road. It was just two deep ruts in the gray dirt. Long-leaf pines towered overhead, blocking out the hazy sunlight. Resurrection ferns poked into the dusky lane, slapping against the car. Several miles farther on the track plunged out from beneath the pines to run beside a lagoon. A tawny red doe and her two half-grown fawns, feasting on the leaves of a sweet myrtle bush, turned startled eyes toward me. I slammed on my brakes, and they bolted into the pine-woods.
I came to the end of the lane, literally, about two hundred yards farther on. And this curious odyssey turned curiouser indeed. The weathered Low Country shack on pilings was to be expected, as was the narrow planked pier extending into the salt marsh and out to the lime-green water of the sound. But the row of cars parked at the end of the lane looked as out of place in this remote marshland as tinsel stars tacked to an evergreen. A blue BMW, a Ford van, a rust-spotted Plymouth, a cream Mercedes sedan, a black Porsche, a yellow classic MG, a red Maserati, and a jade Jaguar. So much for “Buy American” among these drivers.
There was not a soul to be seen. No one near the cars. No one on the pier. No one on the sagging porch of the house. Not a living person other than me moved in that heavy hot air. But my instructions had been precise. This was as far as I would go by automobile. Passage across the water would come next.
I rolled up the windows and locked the car, retrieved my bags from the trunk, and walked toward the pier. Swirling clouds of no-see-ums attacked my bare face and arms, and I knew there would soon be prickly red welts.
I dug into my carry-on bag for some skin lotion to discourage the frenzied insects, slapped it on my arms, then paced up and down the narrow pier. Sweat trickled down my face. A stiff breeze stirred my hair, but the air was so oppressive that it only made me more uncomfortable. Fifteen minutes passed. Then I heard, faintly, the pop-pop-pop of an outboard motor. I waited at the end of the pier, shielding my eyes from the late-afternoon sun and looked out across the whitecapped sound.
The motorboat rode low in the water and its paint job had seen better days, but the stocky black man at the stern handled it with casual competence. As the boat knocked up against the pier, he tied up, then stepped out of the boat and climbed the ladder. The rickety pier quivered as he scrambled up to stand beside me.
“Miz Collins?” He was a muscular man who looked like he worked outdoors, his T-shirt tight against a muscular chest, his dungarees faded and stained.
Without another word, his heavy face somber and unfriendly, he picked up my bags. He tucked both under one arm and descended the ladder.
I looked after him thoughtfully as he stowed the luggage. He knew my name. That meant he had to be the person instructed to convey me to the island. But I didn’t like his scarcely veiled hostility, and I didn’t much like the entire appearance of this venture, the expensive cars haphazardly parked in this isolated, godforsaken wilderness, the slapdash provision for the transference of guests. It created an aura that didn’t reek of welcome.
What kind of gathering was in progress? What the hell was Chase up to?