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“Town in a Cinnamon Toast”

It was the last house at the end of a winding dirt road, a weather-beaten wood-framed cabin with a small front porch and a peaked roof, sitting on a rocky spit of land that jutted out into the dark sea. White-framed windows, graying cedar-shake siding, and a red-painted front door gave it a rustic appearance. A single rocker swayed back and forth on the porch. Wind-blown trees, a dwindling pile of firewood, and a few ragged lilac bushes dotted the property, which had been in the Seabury family for generations.

The cabin’s windows were dark. Even though the sun was setting, there were no lights on inside. No car sat in the double-rutted parking spot at one side of the building.

It seemed no one was home. So where could he be?

With a concerned expression on her face, Candy Holliday pulled her teal-colored Jeep to a stop in front of the cabin and shut off the engine. As she opened the driver’s-side door and stepped out, a sudden sea breeze tossed about her honey-colored hair. Absently she brushed it aside, squinting into the gathering dusk as she surveyed the oceanfront property with an inquisitive gaze.

It was certainly a prime piece of land, isolated and private yet within a short driving distance of downtown Cape Willington. A grass yard, still dull and flattened by the heavy snows of winter, extended a couple dozen feet behind the cabin, eventually giving way to dense shrubbery and a mixture of deciduous and pine trees. Spring wildflowers poked tentatively through the grasses and foliage in places, and Candy spotted a few wild raspberry and blueberry bushes along the back edge of the property, just coming into bloom.

As for the cabin itself, it wasn’t anything fancy. Probably just a couple of bedrooms, she surmised, with a small kitchen and a living and dining room combination. But she imagined the ocean views from the porch, or from anywhere inside the cabin, were magnificent, and she had no doubt the place was cozy and comfortable inside.

After a final glance around, she walked up onto the porch, stepped over to the red-painted door, and rapped on it several times. “Julius,” she called out, “are you home? It’s Candy Holliday. I’ve come to check on you.”

She waited a few moments, leaning forward, her ear turned toward the door, but heard no response, nor any other sounds from inside.

She knocked again, louder this time. “Hello? Mr. Seabury?”

As the cape’s unofficial historian, Julius Seabury was a fixture around the village, and a favorite with tourists. For more than a decade, on weekends and holidays, he had settled himself at the foot of the towering English River Lighthouse, seated in an old wooden folding chair at a card table he’d set up to display multiple copies of his self-published books. Most were short hundred-page histories of the lighthouse, its lightkeepers, the attached museum, prominent local citizens past and present, and the village itself. The books were filled with insightful commentary accompanied by vintage photographs pulled from the museum’s archives, and they sold like hotcakes—several dozen on a good day in the summer, when vacationers flooded into the area, thanks in no small part to Julius’s ebullient, chatty nature.

Candy had known him for years, and had talked to him on many occasions. During their conversations she’d always learned something new, and he’d provided important information that had helped her solve a mystery or two. He was a kindly soul with an active mind. Perhaps more importantly with the upcoming wedding ceremony, he was also the best man.

And he was missing.

He was supposed to have joined them for dinner at the Lightkeeper’s Inn that evening, but he never showed up, so Candy had volunteered to go out looking for him. He was getting older, she knew, becoming frailer. He didn’t get around as well as he used to, and he could be forgetful at times. Maybe he’d mixed up the date or time, or maybe he was just working on another book and everything else had slipped from his mind. She’d tried to call him but his phone just rang, unanswered. So she’d jumped into her Jeep and driven out to his cabin.

She knocked a final, half-hearted time on the red door, then backed away, stepping down off the porch. She walked the entire way around the cabin, peeking in the windows to see if she could spot anyone inside. But it was too dark to make out much, and she saw no shadows moving around. She wondered if she should try to find a way in, but decided against it for now. Breaking and entering was frowned upon by the Cape Willington Police Department. Best not to overreact—at least, not right now.

Just to make sure he wasn’t meandering outside somewhere, she walked a long, wide circle around the property, going all the way back to the edge of the yard, and finally checked down by the water. But there was no sign of Julius anywhere.

Where could he be?

Only one other place, she thought.

After a final look around, she climbed into the Jeep and drove back into town. But rather than return to the Lightkeeper’s Inn to rejoin the dinner party, she headed to the English River Lighthouse, which was located near the inn on Route 196, known locally as the Coastal Loop.

The lighthouse and its attached museum were a second home to Julius. Perhaps he was there conducting research.

Since it was after five P.M., the buildings were closed, and the parking lot was nearly empty. But she thought she recognized Julius’s old red station wagon parked off to one side, where the employees and volunteers liked to park their cars. It was just a short walk from there down to the lighthouse and museum.

She loved coming here. It was always an impressive sight, the whitewashed lighthouse tower standing tall beside the red-roofed Keeper’s Quarters, a two-story Victorian-style cottage housing the town’s historical museum on the first floor. Upstairs were the historical society’s archives, where Julius spent quite a bit of time conducting research for his books.

As she came down the walkway toward the rugged shore, she noticed that a light was on upstairs at the Keeper’s Quarters, visible through one of the windows.

She felt a sense of relief. So he is here, she thought, and hurried down the slope toward the small compound at water’s edge. It consisted of several buildings, including a separate wood-framed garage, a maintenance shed, and a low brick structure that housed the foghorn, in addition to the tower itself and the Keeper’s Quarters.

She wasn’t expecting to find the door to the Keeper’s Quarters unlocked. Usually it was kept locked after hours, even when people were still working inside. But she hoped she could attract the attention of whoever might be upstairs, or perhaps she could get a key from Bob, the maintenance man, if he was still around.

So she was surprised when she climbed the wood steps to the side door of the Keeper’s Quarters and found it not only unlocked, but ajar.

“Well, that’s unusual,” she said softly to herself as she pushed the door further open and stepped inside.

The last light of the day still leaked in through the windows, so it wasn’t completely dark inside. Still, shadows gathered in the corners and along the back walls, so she turned and looked for a light switch. She found it on the wall near the door and flicked it on. A row of fluorescent lights stuttered on overhead, illuminating the main exhibit hall.

Still standing by the door, which she left open behind her, she looked around and listened, but saw or heard no one. There were several rooms on this level, so she thought she’d take a quick look in all of them before heading upstairs—just so there weren’t any surprises. Finding the door unlocked and open made her feel a little uneasy. Best to proceed with caution.

To her left was the Long Desk, a front counter stacked with informational brochures and handouts. She took a few steps toward it, leaning over to get a look behind it, but saw no one.

Further back, on the other side of the counter, a shadowy hallway led to the lighthouse itself. The door at the far end of the hall, which opened into the tower, was locked at all times. Still, she rounded the counter and checked the door just to make sure. As she suspected, it was indeed locked.

The door to the office of the museum’s director was locked as well—again, as it should be.

She checked the other rooms, flicking lights on and off as she moved from one area to another. They were all empty. No one in sight. And no sounds from the floor above her. If Julius was up there, she was sure she’d hear him rustling around.

She was beginning to think the place was empty. She’d been mistaken. Someone must have just forgotten to turn off a light upstairs and lock the door. Still, she had to check, just to make sure. Maybe Julius had fallen asleep while doing his research, or maybe he’d been injured somehow, though she tried not to let her mind jump to conclusions.

She passed through a doorway on her right, which led to a small exhibit room off the main hall, and took the wooden stairs to the second floor. As below, there were several rooms up here, including a narrow one under the eaves that served as a lab for identifying, cleaning, cataloging, and maintaining items in the museum’s collections. A single overhead light was turned on at the top of the stairs, which she’d seen from outside. Two of the larger rooms, to her left and straight ahead, were dark, but she knew they were equipped with shelving and tables to accommodate some of the archives and the needs of researchers like Julius.

She checked the larger room first, on the cottage’s oceanside. She flicked on a light switch just inside the door and took a few steps into the room, but a quick look around revealed nothing.

She turned off the light and moved to the smaller room next, which contained many of the town’s older records.

And that’s where she found him.

He was sprawled on the floor, lying in an awkward position, belly down, one hand thrown above his head, as if he’d been hailing a cab—or trying to defend himself. He was wearing dark brown pants and a threadbare gray cardigan sweater, which was bunched up around him. His gray hair was disheveled and sticking up in places. His head was turned sideways, so his left cheek rested on the hard wood floor. The one eye she could see was closed. His feet were at odd angles.

Candy gasped and hesitated for a few moments just inside the door as her mind registered the scene before her. Then, with a mixture of shock, concern, and surprise, she rushed to his side, falling to one knee.

“Julius,” she called out, and touched him gently on the back shoulder. There was no response. She jostled him, pushing him with increasing force on the back, and called his name again, several times. Finally, reluctantly, she checked the pulse at his neck.

There was none. He was already growing cold and clammy.

She was closer to him now, and as her gaze shifted. He kept his white hair cut short, and there was a bald patch on top, which made it easy to see an indented area at the back of his skull, concave and a few inches long.

Suddenly spooked, she backed away, moving swiftly in a low crouch. Her left foot hit something heavy and knocked it off to one side. It rolled across the floor with a harsh clatter.

Candy dropped into a sitting position and twisted around, her heart thumping as she searched for the object. Finally she spotted it as it bumped against the far wall.

It was an unopened bottle of champagne.

She stared at it in confusion. What was that doing here?

Something about its shape jumped out at her. Her eyes were drawn to the curve around the label, the roundness of the bottle. It seemed, oddly, to match the indentation in the back of Julius’s skull.

Then she realized what the bottle of champagne was . . . .

The murder weapon.

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End of Excerpt
Available from Berkeley Prime Crime, February 2014
Copyrighted material, used by permission.

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