“Honey, don’t delay our guest with questions,” Peggy whispered.
Irritated, Bob frowned slightly. He couldn’t help wondering why the stranger had chosen a relatively remote bed-and-breakfast rather than one of the more convenient motels off the freeway.
“Can I get you something warm to drink?” Peggy asked.
“No, thanks.” His response was gruff, almost unfriendly.
“What brings you out here on a night like this?” Bob pressed. “We aren’t exactly on the beaten path.”
“None of that’s important just now,” Peggy said, glaring at Bob. He could tell she was annoyed by his attitude, but he definitely felt a little uneasy.
The stranger ignored his question. “If you’d show me to my room, I’d appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Peggy led the way down the long hallway off the kitchen. “You have your choice. We have the Goldfinch room and the—”
“The first one is fine.” He seemed impatient to be about his business, whatever that might be. “I’ll have the registration card filled out for you in the morning.” He opened the door and set his case inside, then with his back to them, said, “I hope you won’t mind if I turn in. It’s been a long day.”
Bob was about to tell him the paperwork had to be completed first, but Peggy cut him off. “Breakfast is served between eight and ten. Sleep well.”
“Thank you.” He closed the door hard and they heard the lock snap into place.
Bob waited until they were upstairs before he spoke. “I don’t like the looks of him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Peggy said as she went into the master bathroom to remove her makeup. “He’s a paying guest. You don’t have to like him. My guess is he’ll be gone early in the morning and that’ll be the end of it.”
“Maybe,” Bob muttered, but he had the sinking feeling that wouldn’t be the case.
The storm continued to rage, and Bob stood at the bedroom window that overlooked the inky waters of the Cove. The lighthouse on the point could be seen in the distance, warning ships of danger ahead. An eerie sensation came over him. More than once, he’d wondered about this business of allowing strangers into their home. He didn’t like the man in the room downstairs, although he couldn’t say exactly why. All he knew was that his gut instinct told him the stranger was trouble.
Peggy was such a warmhearted soul that all she saw was the plight of someone caught in a storm, looking for shelter from the night. Bob wished he felt the same.
“Are you coming to bed?” his wife asked, turning down the comforter and sliding between the crisp, clean sheets.
Maybe Peggy was right. She generally was. The man downstairs was just someone passing through. In the morning he’d be on his way and they’d never see him again. The stranger had already paid in full, and if he was reluctant to fill out the information card, well, that was his prerogative.
The following morning, Bob was awakened by the sun. He jerked into sudden wakefulness, surprised to see that it was light outside. Peggy had already gone downstairs; he could hear her singing along to the radio as she baked blueberry muffins. They were her specialty, and the blueberries came from their own small patch next to Peggy’s pride, her herb garden. The aroma of fresh coffee wafted up the stairs.
Bob rubbed his hand down his face, recalling remnants of a familiar nightmare. Not images so much as feelings, impressions, and they hadn’t been pleasant. After he’d climbed into bed, he’d fallen into a light, restless slumber, followed by a deeper sleep. Try as he might, though, he could remember nothing of the dreams he’d had.
Normally he was up before Peggy and made the coffee. Feeling guilty for sleeping so late, he hurriedly dressed. As an afterthought, he walked quickly to the window. Sure enough, the white Ford was still parked below. So their guest hadn’t sneaked out as Bob had half suspected—and half hoped—he might. Perhaps this morning the stranger would be a bit friendlier than he’d been the night before, and Bob could discover what it was about him that had struck a familiar chord.
Peggy smiled when she saw him. “Good morning, hon. It’s ages since you slept this late.”
“I know. I don’t understand why.”
His wife hesitated. “You had another of your nightmares.”
“I don’t really remember….”
“Are you all right this morning?” Her face creased with worry lines as she studied him.
“I’m fine,” he murmured. “I didn’t get up—did I?” Twice over the years, Bob had awakened somewhere outside their bedroom. The only explanation had been sleepwalking.
“You were in bed when you woke, weren’t you?” she teased.
He nodded and was instantly relieved. He hugged his wife, then poured himself a cup of coffee. Taking his Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book,” he walked into the sunroom and settled in his recliner to read. He had twenty years of sobriety behind him, but he still lived one day at a time. He was a drunk who was one shot glass away from ruin, and he didn’t allow a day to go by without reminding himself of that. Twenty minutes later, Peggy took the muffins out of the oven.
Their morning routine was set, and it was almost ten before his wife realized they hadn’t seen their guest, although his car was still there. Curiosity led Bob outside to glance through the driver’s window. A map lay on the passenger seat and a half-full water bottle was in the drink holder, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“I did tell him breakfast was between eight and ten, didn’t I?” she asked Bob when he came back into the house.
“Maybe he’s just sleeping in. He said he had a hard day.”
“It’s after eleven,” Peggy murmured a bit later.
“He’s an odd duck.” Bob wasn’t going to change his opinion about that.
A half hour later, Peggy was again concerned. “Maybe we’d better check to see if he’s all right.”
“Let him sleep,” Bob insisted. “For all we know, he could be in his room working. He did have a computer with him, didn’t he?”
“I don’t remember.”
To Bob’s way of thinking, if the stranger wanted privacy, he’d give it to him.
His wife sent him a questioning look, then shrugged and went back to the quilt she’d recently started. Bob went to his garage workshop; in retirement, he’d taken up woodwork and enjoyed building furniture. Over the years, he’d created some pretty nice pieces, if he did say so himself. He’d recently finished a chest of drawers and was proud of the workmanship. After he’d added a final coat of varnish, he returned to the house. It was now twelve-thirty. A look out the window revealed the stranger’s car parked where it had been earlier.
Bob fixed himself a ham sandwich and resumed his tinkering around the garage. A few minutes later, Peggy sought him out.
“I think we’re going to have to go in there,” his wife said. “I knocked on his door, but there wasn’t any answer.”
Bob decided Peggy was right. Following her into the house, he pounded on the bedroom door.
“Are you awake?” he called loudly.
“There’s no need to yell,” Peggy whispered. She looked nervous, and frankly Bob was starting to feel the same way. Although they’d been in business for more than ten years, it was the first time they’d had an experience—or a guest—like this.
“I have the key,” Peggy told him when there was no response.
“Should I call Troy Davis?” she asked.
The sheriff was a good friend, but Bob didn’t want to waste Troy’s time if there was a logical explanation. “Not yet.”
“But something must be wrong.”
“Don’t leap to conclusions, Peg.” He wished now that he’d gone with his instincts and told the stranger to seek some other place for the night.
Peggy handed him the key and Bob reluctantly inserted it in the lock. Slowly, he turned the knob and swung open the door. Their guest was sleeping in the middle of the bed. His coat hung in the closet, with his hat resting on the shelf directly above. The suitcase was open, but it looked as though a surgeon had packed it. Everything was crisply folded and compact. The suitcase appeared to be undisturbed.
“He could just be sick,” Peggy said, clinging to Bob’s arm.
Bob doubted it. He recognized that smell, and his skin crawled with memories of jungle warfare almost forty years earlier. The scent of death was one a man didn’t quickly forget.
Whatever the stranger’s purpose for being in Cedar Cove, it would likely remain a mystery now.
Bob moved to the bed and stared down at him. The night before, his face had been shadowed by his hat, which was pulled low over his face. He looked younger now that Bob could see him clearly. Younger and completely at peace.
“Is he…dead?” Peggy asked, her dread palpable.
Although he already knew the answer, Bob felt for a pulse in the man’s neck. There was nothing. “I think it’s time we phoned Troy,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, the yard was filled with emergency vehicles. EMTs, several officers and the medical examiner tramped through the house. Bob answered question after question, but he wasn’t able to provide Troy or Joe Mitchell, the medical examiner, with much information.
“There’ll have to be an autopsy,” Troy said.
“Are you going to take him out of here soon?” Peggy asked. Bob could tell that she was shaken by all of this. Truth be known, so was he.
The medical examiner came out of the room and peeled off his plastic gloves.
“Do you have any idea what killed him?” Bob asked.
“Not yet,” Joe said, frowning. “He’s driver’s license says his name’s Whitcomb. James Whitcomb, and he’s from Florida. Mean anything to you?”
“No.” Bob could say that with certainty, despite the hint of familiarity last night. “I’ve never seen the man in my life.”
Joe continued to frown. “He’s had extensive cosmetic surgery.”
Bob hardly knew what to make of that information.
“There’s something unusual going on here,” Joe said, following the body as it was wheeled out of the room and down the hall.
Maryellen’s popularity at Get Nailed had fallen considerably after the Halloween party. Rachel, her nail tech, had met Terri’s discarded male friend who enjoyed working on cars. Things had looked promising for a while.
All through November and December, Rachel had been full of praise for Larry and everything he was doing for her car. First, he replaced her failing brakes, and at a fraction of the cost a shop would have charged. Then he got her interior lights working. He even managed to fix her tape deck. Rachel was grateful and managed to convince herself that she was falling madly in love. How could she not love a man who was saving her hundreds of dollars?
Then her transmission went out. This was a major repair, but Rachel’s hero was confident he could fix it. All she had to do was buy the new transmission. Unfortunately Larry had overestimated his skills. Not only had he bungled the job, but Rachel had to take her vehicle into the shop and pay for the repairs a second time. To add insult to injury, Larry had presented her with a bill for all the labor and parts he’d put into her car. Needless to say, the relationship had taken a sharp turn south.