A Susan Chase Mystery
  
 
Before the killing started there were more than half a dozen guests, including the witch. Now only three remained--one of them the killer. Unless someone else was lurking in the old Victorian house. 

  
Chapter One
 
       It was supposed to be a hurricane party. It turned out to be an invitation to murder.
       Chad has a problem. Me.
       I’ve always been a problem for the boy. Yes, yes, I love my main man, but there’s this thing between us, a guy thing that weighed heavily on my mind as I peddled my bike through the rain of the approaching storm. While I’m out chasing down the bad guys, Chad can’t be satisfied with merely building some of the most beautiful boats to be found along the Grand Strand.
      You can tell your man just so many times how proud you are of his accomplishments, but always in his head is the fact that I’m the one who kicks in doors and brings in the bad guys. I carry a Lady Smith & Wesson; don’t leave home without it. Chad carries a briefcase filled with designs of his latest watercraft. You’d think being that creative would be enough, but it’s not, and that brings us back to the hurricane party.
      It was September and hurricane season had been busy. Charleston had already been threatened, as had Myrtle Beach, and a storm by the name of Josephine was wandering around in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing had hit us. Yet. But Hurricane Lili was on her way. She was going to smack right into the Grand Strand, and people were headed inland. The smart ones, that is. Evidently, I was engaged to one of the other sort. My fiancé had accepted an invitation to a hurricane party.
      Why were we riding bicycles? Well, motorbikes and cars don’t run all that well after being submerged in salt water when a storm has passed through. We had left Chad’s Lexus on the Myrtle Beach bypass, parked at Broadway at the Beach, and ridden in from there, avoiding any safety patrols trying to protect us from ourselves.
      It had been tough sledding. Sometimes the wind was in our faces, sometimes it tried to blow us over. We rode in low gear most of the way, and because of the rain, we wore the appropriate attire, laminated Gore-tex: Chad’s a bright blue, mine a dull lifeguard red. Large packs on our backs held in place by frames made us an easy target for gusts up to twenty miles per.
      My rain gear was a holdover from the days when I’d been a lifeguard and finder of runaways, before graduating to private investigating and finally to SLED, the investigative arm of the government of South Carolina, officially called the State Law Enforcement Division.
      Hurricane Hugo had been my party and once was enough. The sound the wind makes is like a train rumbling through, or whispering to you—all night long. And you’d better have your house boarded up because it could end up in the second row. Second row is anything off the beach, and when hurricanes come ashore, they tend to move wooden structures into the second row, boats even farther.

      After taking my boat, Daddy’s Girl, inland, I returned to the Grand Strand to find Chad brimming with excitement.
      “We’re going to a hurricane party.”
      “Not interested.”
      “Suze, you’ve been to one. I want that experience.”
      “I don’t think so.” Glancing around the landing, I saw most of the boats were gone.
      My berth mate, Harry Poinsett, and I had already sailed southward and inland, as most hurricanes come ashore and move northward. It had been a real traffic jam of river craft pushing into the wind and rain. Everyone along the Grand Strand remembered Hugo. Everyone--but my boyfriend, it would appear.
      Chad’s invite was to weather the storm in a house that had been built in Victorian style just after the Second World War: three stories, gables, two staircases, one a spiral, and ten-foot ceilings. It had a wraparound porch, fifteen rooms—five to each floor—and some of the most beautiful furniture I had ever seen.
      Ever since I’d gotten it through my thick head that Chad Rivers really loved me, I’d bent over backwards to make our relationship work. This time though, as I pedaled along in the wind and the rain, I felt I was meeting him more than halfway, and it really chapped me.

      When Chad and I arrived, people were busily shuttering the place. One car—a yellow Nissan sedan—sat in the crushed shell parking lot behind the house. As we rode up on our bicycles, a young redhead I recognized ran down the steps and into the parking area. The girl, now in her twenties, was someone I had once gone looking for during the early days of my searching for runaways along the Grand Strand.
      She was in tears as she rushed to her car and kept chanting, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” She hopped in the yellow Nissan and was out of there.
      “Need I say more?” I asked, turning to Chad as rain hit me in the face.
      He gave a snort of disgust.
      A bearded guy wearing a yellow slicker straightened up from where he stood near an opening under the house. The foundation of the house was made of concrete, awash with sand, and about three-feet high.
      After watching the redhead go, he waved to us and raised his voice over the wind. “There’s chains under here for your bikes.”
      Chad and I locked up our bikes alongside several others under the house, then wandered around to where we had seen two guys moving a ladder from one second-story window to another. Chad said the house had plenty of tongue-and-groove lumber throughout and hurricane straps holding the trusses together. He said it had been built to withstand hurricanes.
      Yeah, right.
      With a hurricane you’re most concerned about shutters and escape routes. Since none of us was smart enough to leave the beach area, that meant we’d be worried about shutters, along with provisions once the storm had passed. Nothing much works once a hurricane passes through, and all the stores would have already been cleaned out of food, lumber, and purified water. I intended to check our host’s provisions. I did not want to be dependent on what I’d hauled in on my bike and my back.
      Victorian-style homes don’t usually have shutters, but this is the Grand Strand, so there’s always a likelihood of storms. Black galvanized steel shutters had been added, and unlike most add-ons, these actually worked. The paint had been baked on at the factory.
       On the ground floor the shutters had been easily secured. The second story was a bit dicier. A guy wearing a camouflage poncho and baseball cap gripped the top of a twenty-foot ladder, held at its base by two other men. An “oops!” by one of them holding the ladder sent Chad tossing his pack on the wraparound porch and running to their assistance. I clutched my backpack and shook my head. I truly did love this guy and I could only hope I wouldn’t pay for my devotion.
      The one with the billowing poncho held two steel rods in his free hand; with the other he clutched the top of the ladder. Very quickly he reached up and placed one rod across hooks already in place on opposite sides of the closed shutters. The other rod he dropped across a pair of matching hooks at the bottom.
       The guy in the billowing camouflage poncho was up and down the ladder in less than a minute. While his helpers, now including Chad, moved the ladder, the climber jerked down tightly on the bill of his baseball cap, picked up two more steel rods, and returned to the base of the ladder. They’d repeated this routine on all four sides of the house.
      Swallowing my annoyance, I headed in the direction of the crushed shell parking lot and found the guy in the yellow slicker hauling a sheet of half-inch plywood from under the house. The wind didn’t make this easy so I dumped my pack on the porch, caught up with him, and grabbed one end of the rectangular-shaped piece of wood.
       He smiled in appreciation, and we carried the board over and placed it against the door where I’d seen the redhead exit. As I held it against the door, the guy with the beard looked for where the predrilled holes in the plywood matched the holes in the frame of the house.
      “Upside down,” he informed me. On this side of the house facing the road, you didn’t have to shout.
      We flipped the board over, and almost lost the sucker in a gust of wind. The guy caught his end before it whopped him up against the head.
      “Thanks again,” he said with a nervous grin.
       He let go of the board, put a shoulder into it, and slipped his free hand under the slicker, reaching into his jeans’ pocket. Out came the screws, and from his back pocket he produced a Phillips head screwdriver and went to work fitting the screws through the holes while I held the board against the door. Matching the holes was tricky, but once he had one screw inserted and a second diagonally across from it, he fitted the rest easily in place. Now the rear entrance of the house was secured.
      After slipping the Phillips under his slicker, he extended a hand. “Jeremy Knapp.” He regarded me with his soft, brown eyes. His round, tanned face was partly hidden under the hood of his yellow slicker and the beard. “Didn’t you hang around the Pavilion?”
      I took his extended hand. “Susan Chase, and it was The Attic.” A place where teens hang to get away from their parents and vice-versa.
      “Now I remember. The girl who loved to dance. Didn’t know there were going to be any girls at the party except for the witch.”
      What he said threw me off my stride and I entirely forgot about the redheaded female. “The witch?”
      “Lady Light. You know, the witch on the Web. She’s going to make the hurricane go away.”
      I looked in the direction of the storm. The three-story structure sat on a point with breakers running from a sand beach. Now there was no beach and you could barely see the craggy rocks that formed the jetty that protected the point. Thick gray clouds lay low above a dark and angry sea, palm trees leaned in a wind that often changed direction, and oily-looking waves crashed ashore.
       “Then I wish her luck.”
      “That’s why I’m here. Two experiences for the price of one.”
      “Pardon me?”
      “I’ve never attended a hurricane party.”
     “So I figured.”
      “You went through a hurricane?”
      “Yes, but I was very drunk.”
      “What was it like?”
      “Don’t let me spoil your fun.”
      He looked at the churning seas less than a hundred feet from where we stood. “Think we’re in any real danger?”
      “That has a certain appeal to you?”
      “I don’t want to die. I’m like anyone else.”
      “Anyone else left days ago.”
      “Why didn’t you?”
      “I’m with the guy over there.”
        I gestured to my great-looking fiancé, who, with a skinny guy dressed in black, brought the ladder around the house. As we watched, the ladder was rested on hooks on the back wall that snapped over, trapping the ladder in place.
      “Chad?”
      I nodded as Chad and his new friend disappeared around the front of the house.
      “Standing by your man?” asked Jeremy with a smile.
      I shrugged. “What did you mean about two experiences for the price of one?”
      We were behind the house where the diminished sounds of the wind and surf made it easier to speak. Still, the rain had the nasty habit of sneaking under the bill of my baseball cap and tickling my face.
      “My mother and father had government jobs and they hated them,” he said. “Their parents had drummed into their heads what it had been like living through the Great Depression, so my folks opted to work for Uncle Sam.” He laughed. “My brother and sister both have government jobs they hate.”
      “And a pretty good retirement plan.”
      He regarded me as we headed toward the front of the house. “And what do you do for a living, if I might ask?”
      “Professional lifeguard.”
      “Yeah,” he said, “if I remember correctly, you always had a great tan.”
      I didn’t mention my job with SLED because some people don’t care to have cops at parties, and several times I’ve had to ask Chad to leave because of what people were doing, or what they wanted us to do. But there was no way we could leave this party, so Chad and I’d agreed I would use the story of my former career as a lifeguard and runaway finder.
      “Susan, I’ve been up the Amazon, ridden on the Orient Express since they’ve gotten it up running again, and traveled to the North Pole.”
      I could only stare, then follow that with a “Wow!” Glimmers of what I could do if I wasn’t engaged flashed through my head.
      “My brother and sister put me down because they’re jealous of what I’ve done.”
      “Accomplished.”
      He shook his head as we trudged through the rain. “According to my parents I haven’t accomplished anything. I got hooked on Marco Polo when I was a kid and used to hitch up and down the East Coast. It’s more than a kid’s game played in swimming pools. Did you know that Marco Polo spent years in the Far East working for the emperor and mastered several languages?”
      “And how many languages have you mastered on all your jaunts?”
      “Mastered?” He stopped. “Why would I? Everyone speaks English.”
      “What’s your connection to Lady Light?” Lady Light, or Helen McCuen, had not been mentioned when Chad had brought up the subject of attending a hurricane party.
      “Connection?” He was more guarded now. As we continued toward the steps of the wraparound porch, he asked, “What do you mean?”
      “My boyfriend was invited, probably because he and Helen attended the same high school. I imagined you knew Lady Light from a past life.”
      “Helen and I met at Carolina.” Meaning the University of South Carolina, or the real USC, as it is called in these parts.
      “You were collecting the experience of being Joe College?”
      “Never finished. Just trying to please my parents. Lady Light was studying broadcast journalism; me, the traditional print stuff. We used to argue about who’d have the greatest impact on society. She wanted to be the next Jane Pauley. Then, the summer before her senior year she interned at a local TV station. When she saw all the backstabbing and turf wars that go on behind the scenes, she opted to move to Hollywood and become a movie star. If she was going to go through all that garbage, she might as well make a run at the brass ring. It sounded like a pretty cool gig, so she and I spent a couple of years in L.A. trying to break into the movies.”
      “I take it that didn’t work out.”
      He shook his head and rain fell from the hood of his yellow slicker as he went up the porch steps. “Out there, blondes are a dime a dozen, and me, I don’t have the looks. No cheekbones.” He picked up my pack and I let him. “But I had the chance to travel to Hawaii and up the Pacific Coast.” He glanced out to sea. “You know, they have an entirely different beach up there.”
      “I’ve heard there’s none.”
      “You’d be pretty close to correct.”
      Rounding the corner to the front of the house, we raised our shoulders, as if that could protect us from the storm. “I’ve kept up with Lady Light through her Web site. She got into witchcraft about the same time I left for Alaska.”
      “Summer or winter visit?” I asked with a smile.
      “I’ve done both,” he said with a smirk.
      “So you asked to come to the party.”
      “Pretty much so. I spent last spring chasing tornadoes.”
      "Like in the movie Twister."
      “Just like that,” he said with a nod.
      Chad and the other three men huddled at the front door, somewhat protected by the porch. Water dripped from their rain gear and puddled at their feet. If the hurricane came ashore there would be more than puddles on this porch.
      Chad flashed me a smile as I approached more members of the party, and I tried to return the smile but failed miserably. Behind him, the shutters for the double doors were still open, hooked in place, waiting for the last person to go inside.
       Before we reached the others, I asked, “When you think you’ll settle down?”
      Jeremy looked at me. “Now you sound like my mother.”
      “Just making conversation. We’re not going anywhere soon.” I took my pack from him as the ocean slammed into shore. The wind had really gotten up, and the rain came at us on the horizontal. I turned away from the stinging drops.
       “Maybe I’ll find a woman who likes to travel.” He stopped before we reached the others, and that had the intended result. I stopped, too, and my wet Nikes squeaked on the wet surface of the porch. “What about you? Like to tag along?”
      “Not a chance,” I said, extending the hand with the engagement ring. Water dripped from my finger and made the rock glisten. “I have to make sure my invitations go out.”
      “Sorry to hear that, Susan.”
      “I’m not.”
      He glanced at Chad, who had pulled back the top of his rain gear. “So you’ll marry, have the house, the kids, and the picket fence—that appeals to you?”
      “I’m an orphan, Jeremy. Any kind of family appeals to me.”
      “With no ties to the community, you could take off anytime.”
      “I’d lose my job.”
      “It’s not much of a job, but that’s not my point.”
      “Your point is that I should have the same interest in roaming the globe as you do. It’s like parents who give their kids weird names—because no one ever made fun of their names while growing up, why not give their kid a zippy-sounding name. You couldn’t understand the attraction of having a family because you’ve always had a mother, father, and that brother and sister you blow off.”
      He laughed before heading for the group standing near the front doors. “This is going to be an interesting party.”
      “It’s an oxymoron to call a hurricane party a 'party.'"
      “You think we’re all nuts.”
      “Before this is over, you’ll all think you’re nuts.”

Copyright Steve Brown 2002
All Rights Reserved 
Order from your local bookstore with ISBN 0-9712521-5-7. 
 

 
First Chapters of the Susan Chase Mysteries
Color Her Dead
Stripped to Kill
Dead Kids Tell No Tales
When Dead Is Not Enough
Hurricane Party
Sanctuary of Evil
 
Susan Chase Mysteries (Set at Myrtle Beach)
The Charleston Ripper