We had lucked out, the stars had aligned, or maybe a certain police sergeant decided to play matchmaker. Woody and I were enjoying the same Wednesday off work—together. Even though fraternization within the Dare County Sheriff’s staff on Hatteras Island was not encouraged, many on the force were rooting for our budding romance.
Our work overlapped at times, but our jobs didn’t entail working together often. Woody served and protected by patrolling the island with his partner to break up domestic fights, stop speeding vacationers, and keep drunks off the roads. I investigated the island’s crimes, mostly B & E of the many empty vacation homes.
We had cast off our professional duties and taken to the beach, deserted on the warm December day. I drove with the window down. Temperatures were in the mid sixties. Woody scanned the waves looking for a good place to surf. When my phone rang, I stopped driving to answer it and prayed my day off work would remain free.
“Sue, I need a favor.”
I recognized the voice of my friend, Annie, whose son, Max, was my son, Jared’s best friend.
“Beckman, my boss, got a couple of last-minute rentals for Christmas. He needs me to clean them today. Can you pick up Max after school and let him play with Jared at your house until I get home?”
“No problem. Call me when you’re done.” Annie thanked me, and I hung up.
I flashed Woody a smile of relief. “It’s okay. I have to pick up Max after school until Annie finishes cleaning some rentals.”
I put the Jeep in gear. We drove in silence as Woody continued to scan the waves. I took a miniature candy cane from my pocket and popped it in my mouth, breaking it in half so my cheek wouldn’t bulge out like a four year old’s.
Woody stuck his hand out. “Fork two over.”
Dang it. I’d thought his attention was on the waves. Woody could multipurpose with a mother’s ability to juggle. I feigned ignorance.
“Come on, I know you have half a box stuffed in your pocket.”
I rolled my eyes and pulled a few mini candy canes from my pocket to sustain him for the ride, not that I became addicted to them during the season or anything. I just happened to have some with me. You never knew when you’d come across a lost child in need of a candy cane for comfort while we located the parents. Woody accepted the treats with an all-knowing smile and, after stuffing a candy cane in his mouth, too, resumed watching the waves.
“Do you see that?” Woody pointed through the windshield.
I slowed down and watched what looked like a driftwood tree floating down the beach’s slope in the surf. I parked the Jeep near the dunes parallel to the tree. During floods, water washed trees from the soil leaving their root systems intact. Pulled by currents, these trees floated in the ocean until they washed up on the beach. The saltwater, while hardening the wood, also denuded the trees of their leaves. This tree had been repurposed for Christmas, but the high tide was reclaiming it.
“Look at those decorations,” I said. “They’re beautiful, and look how many there are.”
“Let’s get it out of the surf and plant it above the tideline.”
“Whoever went to so much trouble decorating the tree sure didn’t understand the ocean on this stretch of beach.”
Woody shook his head. We slipped on our wading boots to protect us from the fifty-degree water and pulled the tree from the surf. We dug a hole near the dunes, plopped the tree in, and buried the root system in the sand, keeping the tree upright much as it had while the tree was alive.
“It’s cute,” I said and wondered who had taken the time to decorate the tree. It was cool. “Let me get pictures for Jared. He’ll love it. Bet I have to drive him down here so he can see it.”
“With it above the tideline, everyone can enjoy it for a while.”
A bird landed on the upper branches. “Even the birds.”
We laughed, and I took a few shots with my phone. Through the lens, an ornament caught my attention. It was a red plastic ball. Black handwriting on it formed, “RIP Toni.”
“That’s strange.” I pointed to the ornament.
“You’re right,” Woody said. His forehead creased as we circled the tree.
Upon closer inspection, scattered among the traditional ornaments, women’s jewelry adorned the tree. An earring hung on one branch, its mate on another, a bracelet encircled another branch, and a ring adorned the top branch like a halo. It looked as if the tree was part Christmas Tree-part memorial to someone named Toni.
“Borders on macabre,” Woody said.
“Yeah. I wonder who Toni is.” I looked at Woody, who raised his hands, palms up.
“Maybe Toni and the decorator vacationed on Hatteras. Toni died, and the decorator came here to mourn, think about the good times they had together, and put up the tree in honor of her and the season.”
“Could be.” I hoped none of the birds swallowed the smaller pieces. Who would waste jewelry in this way? I doubted the jewelry was gem quality, but then how would I know? It gave me a funny feeling.
“Then again, it could be some weirdo,” Woody said.
We don’t label everyone a “weirdo,” and yet there are those who come to the island with values and behavior outside of the norm. The island attracts extreme people—from those kite boarders and surfers who thought catching a wave during a hurricane would be awesome to Midwest vagabonds who wanted to live by the ocean, only to discover that Hatteras wasn’t Florida.
“Whatever. Let’s drive further up and check out more waves,” I said and we did, forgetting about the tree and enjoying the lull before the Christmas celebration rush started. But that night as I lay in bed, the “RIP Toni” ornament still bothered me.
Three days later, Saturday, I was stuck alone in our Buxton offices while everyone else was out on patrol or off island at a meeting. I bored myself silly reading reports. After an hour, I put the reports down, poured a cup of coffee, enjoyed another candy cane, and admired our office Christmas tree, reminding me of the driftwood tree and the pictures I’d taken of it. I started downloading the tree pictures onto my computer to examine them more closely when the phone rang.
“Police. Can I help you?”
“Yes, who is this, please?”
“Annie. Come quick. It’s awful.”
“Where are you?”
“Robin Lane. Airport View.”
“What’s going on?”
“It’s a body. A woman’s bloody body. Flies everywhere.” I heard her gag.
“Don’t touch. I’ll be there in five.”
“Touch. Are you out of your mind? Not touching and out of the house.”
“Okay. Good.” I hung up, forwarded the phone to my cell, and took two tries to lock the door. I ran to my patrol car and screeched out of the parking lot, bubble flashing and rubber burning. The house was on the ocean side just below the airport in Frisco. I took the left turn off Route 12 into Robin Lane. Although I wasn’t sure which house was named “Airport View,” I saw Annie’s rusted Honda in a driveway. I slammed the car into park behind her car. Good to her word, Annie sat on the front steps, quivering with shock.
“Here.” I pulled a candy cane out of my pocket. “Sugar helps. Talk.”
Annie tore the candy from the plastic wrapper. “On the upper level. I’m not cleaning that up. I’ll quit before I have to do that.” She popped the end of the candy in her mouth and broke off the straight end with her teeth.
“No, there are specialized cleanup crews for hire. I’ll recommend one to the rental agency.
Anyone else in the house?”
“No.” Annie’s eyes got big. “I don’t think so. Oh, my, God. Could the killer be in the house?” She buried her face in her hands.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Doubt it, but I’ll check. Stay here.” I ran back to my car, called for backup, and donned plastic gloves and booties. I doubted anyone was in the house, but I didn’t want to mess up the crime scene.
I cleared the house room by room ending with the top floor family room where the body lay. Annie wasn’t kidding about flies. I pulled up my shirt to cover my nose and mouth. Breathing through my mouth reduced the odor I smelled, and I didn’t want to inhale any flies. The woman lay face down. She appeared to have died from multiple stab wounds in the back. The attack had been vicious and personal. If she had no wounds on her front—the act of a coward. I took a few moments to study the scene.
When Woody and his partner pulled up, I came outside to greet them.
“Sue, why didn’t you wait for us?” Woody said. “Someone could have shot you.” The vehemence of his voice told me he was mad, but he kept it in check.
“Woody—Annie said there were flies. She must have lain there for two days at least. Perp long gone.” I appreciated his protective attitude, but he failed to acknowledge my professional assessment of the scene.
“Oh,” he said, dropping his raised shoulders and looking to where Annie still sat. “I’ll question her.” He turned to his partner. “Your lucky day, Jack. Most rookies don’t get to see their first dead bodies less than a month from leaving the academy. Observe. Do not touch.”
Jack nodded and followed Woody like a reluctant puppy suspicious of a trip to the veterinarian. I decided to observe as well. My familiarity with Annie could throw off the interview. Woody sat down next to Annie on the step and took out a small notebook.
“When did you get here?”
“Fifteen minutes ago. I found the body and called.”
“Any idea who she is?”
“I was at the agency when the couple picked up the key. The owner, Mr. Beckman, was at the desk. His trying to pronounce her name made me smile all day. Her name was Antoinette, but he said ‘Ant-on-net.’ After—”
“Who was with her?”
“Talk, dark, and handsome—woman dressed as a man. I don’t think Beckman got that he was a she. I didn’t catch the name, but after Beckman mangled Antoinette’s name, the woman asked him to call her Toni.”
A shiver coursed up my spine. “Woody, we need to secure that tree we found in the surf.”
Beckman provided the victim’s Raleigh address. We ran a search through the DMV’s database and found a driver’s license photo that matched the corpse. Woody and I went back to the inlet, took more extensive pictures, got the National Park Service’s permission, and then bagged the entire tree, roots and all. Good thing some company came out with those huge bags to dispose of Christmas Trees. We used one for evidence collection. The suspect’s fingerprints were on every decoration.
Armed with fingerprints taken from the tree’s decorations, I sought help from the local Raleigh police department, who notified the next of kin. When one of Toni’s neighbors, who had been introduced to a “friend,” as Toni had phrased it, provided us with a name, we found the suspect in front of her house.
Sharon McKenna was packing her car and ready to hit the road for a family holiday in Vermont. She seemed put out by the interruption of her plans. Our search of the vehicle resulted in finding a knife stuck in the glove box. I knew we had our killer when her fingerprints matched those I’d brought. With the knife properly documented, our experts soon determined that the knife matched the victim’s wounds. We had means, and with Annie’s testimony, opportunity. But, I also wanted to determine the killer’s motive.
I had her extradited to Manteo, the location of the Dare County lockup. Sharon acted belligerent and puzzled, but she never asked for a lawyer. It made me wonder. Later, we found out she was a lawyer—a foolish one.
Woody and I had decided which parts of the story we’d tackle. In the interrogation room, we sat down in wooden chairs. Suspects assumed we make them uncomfortable on purpose, but they were uncomfortable for us, too. For all I knew, some multi-million dollar study proved the psychological effects of wood chairs on criminals’ buns resulted in confessions. More likely, the county was cheap.
A bailiff led Sharon into the room. I had to smile when she grimaced as her buns hit the chair. I stood up, turned away from the suspect, popped part of a candy cane in my mouth, and spun around to startle her. “Why did you kill Toni?”
Sharon flinched but recovered. “Who says I did?”
“The evidence. We have proof,” I said.
“Bullshit. You got nothing.”
I love when a suspect gives me opportunity to say something stupid but profound. “Au contraire.”
I suppressed a smile. Woody’s eyes rolled.
“Your fingerprints were found,” I said.
“Where?” she asked.
“Why did you kill Toni?”
Her jaw clenched.
Woody shifted in his chair. “Do you always play the man, or was it your turn?”
Sharon shook her head. “I’d heard Toni came to the island with a man. Why aren’t you looking for him?”
“The ‘man’ was you,” Woody said.
“Why would you say that?” she asked.
I was getting sick of being questioned by the suspect. “We have two witnesses who can place you with Toni on Hatteras, checking in with the real estate company. You didn’t fool anyone.”
I wasn’t about to tell her Beckman hadn’t known. “We have your fingerprints. Some were on your Christmas—Memorial Tree you made for Toni.”
She stood up fast and stomped her foot. “You couldn’t have found the tree.”
I pushed her back down in her chair. “We grabbed it out of the surf.”
“Why would you do that?”
“You did a great job of decorating it.” I smiled to show that her stupidity made me happy.
“But I have a tide app on my phone. No one was on the beach. The high tide was due an hour after I finished the tree. It went out to sea. Even if someone saw me decorate it, you don’t have it.”
She did it again! I took the opportunity to crack more candy cane in my mouth and then said, “Au contraire, Sharon.”
I gestured to Woody. “We drove down the beach as it was about to plunge into the surf.” As if seeing the scene from my memory, I looked into the distance. “The tree was so cool. We waded in and fetched it out of the brink. Buried it by the roots up near the dunes. I even took pictures of it. But then we noticed your ‘RIP Toni’ ornament.”
I waited for her reaction. When none came, I targeted her eyes. “I feel bad now that I know you didn’t kill Toni until the next day.” Leaning down, I put my hand on the back of her chair and got in her face. “But we didn’t know who Toni was until we found her dead body. Your fingerprints were on every ornament. Why did you do it? We’ll find out one way or another.”
She folded her hands in her lap before speaking to us. “Toni retitled her house with my name on it. I was named as her primary beneficiary in her will.” Sharon looked up at me. “And then she went and had an affair with her secretary. Of all the stereotypical things to do. It pissed me off. I gave her the jewelry on the tree. I had a right to do whatever I wanted with it. She had no reason to have an affair. Bitch!” Then she stopped talking. She knew she’d said too much.
Some people have personal boundary issues. Like the jewelry, I guess she felt entitled to kill her possession—Toni.
We wrapped up the case in time for our Christmas Eve office party. As I sat on the edge of my desk, nursing a glass of wine and sucking on a candy cane, I gave a momentary thought to the officers who drew the short straw and landed duty tonight and Christmas Day. But only for a minute. Last year, I had pulled holiday duty. It came with the job.
“You still on that candy cane kick?” Woody asked and nudged my foot as he sat down beside me.
“Yeah. So what?” I asked.
“I remember you in elementary school. Nothing’s changed.”
“So, I’ve always liked candy canes,” I said, and whispered, “Makes me more kissable.”
His eyebrows wiggled. “I’ll test that later.” He got up, poured himself a glass of wine, and sat down again. “She must think we’re country bumpkins or something.”
“She may have fooled Beckman, but she didn’t fool Annie.” I shook my head. “I can’t believe she claimed that the victim came to Hatteras with a man. Annie identified her as the ‘man’ right away.”
“More than that, did she really think there wouldn’t be forensic evidence? Male or female, what would it matter?”
“She did a good job at the house, must have worn gloves and cleaned all the surfaces, but she forgot when she decorated the tree.” I took a sip of wine.
Woody shook his head. “She didn’t forget. She counted on the ocean washing the tree away. Her tide app guaranteed we wouldn’t find it.”
I laughed. “Too bad she’d done such a nice job of decorating it. We couldn’t let the ocean take it. Maybe she thinks no one goes on the beach during winter.” I looked at Woody. “Everyone knows that’s the best time to find shells.”
“I felt sick when the coroner determined that Toni was killed on Thursday.”
I felt my stomach twinge. “We could have saved her.”
“Had we known who she was,” Woody said. “But we didn’t. So stop feeling bad.”
“I told the Sheriff and the DA to go for first degree murder. There’s just no question.” My pictures dated on Wednesday and our testimony would prove premeditation.
“There’s no way she can claim self-defense without defense wounds or a mark on the front of the victim’s body. Sharon stabbed her in the back.”
“She can’t claim insanity. Even if it was insane, she planned it.”
“Sue, when you testify, make sure you leave the candy canes at home. You don’t look very professional.”
I turned to him and looked him in the eyes. “Really,” I said.
What nerve! His tongue was as candy cane red as mine. I rolled my eyes. Later, when he wanted to test how kissable I was, he’d regret that remark.