Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
by Peter E. Abresch
This novella is the anchor story in the anthology, Deadly Morsels, edited by Feroze Mohammed of
Worldwide Mysteries. Three other novellas are included in the book, Another's Curse, Red or
Green?, and Cake Job. Look for it in April 03.
Jim Dandy glanced down into Dodee Swisher's smooth face, cornflower eyes crinkled with laugh lines, hair the color of ripened wheat, then stared out at the ocean.
An icy wind cut across the green sea, streaking it with white spindrift and shearing off wave tops as they stumbled over themselves in a rush to shore, only to crash to their death in a rolling thunder against the North Carolina coast.
Just what he needed.
Walking along on a freeze-your-balls-off morning, chilling the marrow of his sixty-something bones, when he could be back in their room having a snooze.
He licked the sea salt from his lips and nodded. "Oh yeah."
"You don't say that with any enthusiasm, sweetheart."
And the worst part? They were walking with the wind.
"I'm enthused just being near you, lady."
"Is that coming from your heart or another part of your anatomy?"
Keep your mouth shut. No way to win that one.
Fact was, that might be the real reason he was out here. No, screw it, it was the reason.
He put his arm around her, feeling the trim body he knew lurked under the bulky coat from teaching aerobics to senior citizens, and gazed down at her as she took in the assault of sea upon sand. And he realized her artist's mind was seeing things that a semi-retired physical therapist from Maryland couldn't. And he loved her for it.
But damn it, couldn't she have seen the same thing from behind the windshield of his Lincoln with strands of "Scheherazade" coming from the tape deck? And the heater keeping them toasty?
"I said, is that coming from your heart or another part of your anatomy?"
And if they had to face the elements, why not walk up the beach? Against the icy wind? Freezing her lips to her teeth so she couldn't ask dumb questions about where his enthusiasm was coming from. That way, when they headed back, the stiff breeze would have given them a boost.
She had pointed downwind and shouted, "Look, there's something rolling in the surf. Maybe it's a treasure. Let's go see."
And so they had set off down-wind and would now face it in the teeth on the way back.
She poked him the ribs. "You didn't answer the question."
Worse thing was, the floundering treasure had submarined under the foam, so now she'd trek him all the way to the Oregon Inlet before giving up on what was probably only an old log.
"See," he said, "I thought I had answered, but I guess my mind is so frozen that the words never reached my lips, or my lips are so frozen that I didn't realize they weren't working, or my tongue is so frozen--"
"All right, sweetheart," she said, stopping and yanking him about-face, "if you want to turn back, why don't you just say so?"
"Becathe my tongue ith tho forthen--
"Bend your head and I'll warm it up for you."
So he did, tasting the sea salt on her lips, and, indeed, her moist mouth did warm his tongue, and everything else for that matter, making the ordeal of trudging through the sand on a freeze-your-balls-off morning all worth it.
Except for one little thing.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a couple of Frankenstein-monster waves, one piggybacking on top of another, charge up the beach and deposit the missing treasure at the edge of the waterline.
Only it was no treasure, not even an old log, not wearing a shredded green parka and tattered black pants.
She looked up at him. "What's the matter?
"Don't turn around."
She turned around. "Oh God, it's a man."
"I told you not to turn around." He patted his pockets. "You have your cell phone?"
"Back in the car."
"Yeah, so is mine." He scanned the beach to see they were alone. "Stay away from the body."
But she walked straight up and stared down at it.
He held up his hands and let them flop to his sides.
At least it was face down, which spared her from seeing his--
"We should roll him over."
She turned to him. "Roll him over."
"Are you crazy? A body lolling about in the water for who know's how long isn't a pleasant thing to see, much less smell."
"I don't smell anything."
"Wait. The cold water acted like a refrigerator, but now it's out in the air."
"It's a man, Jim, not a thing."
"One that has been sand-papered in the surf."
"We should roll him over on his back so he can at least face the sky."
"He's dead, Dodee, he doesn't care--"
"All right, I'll do it."
"Okay, okay." He might as well be talking to the gelid wind. "But this is not going to be a pretty sight." He squatted down next to it. "You know this is disturbing a crime scene?"
"Crime scene?" She palmed-up a hand. "Who's the perpetrator, the sea? You going to roll him over or not?"
"Okay, okay, but I'm going on record that I'm against it."
He glanced up at the heavens and shook his head--yeah buddy, that would help--then grabbed the cold and clammy shoulder of the green parka, and the tattered black pants at the hip, and heaved the body over. One arm flopped half across the chest, the other half hidden under the back, and the ankles crossed as they followed.
He stood up as his stomach did a couple of flip-flops.
Yep, it wasn't a pretty sight.
Empty sockets stared up at the blustery sky, sockets that had once been occupied by eyeballs, eaten away now by crabs or gouged out by the abrasive surf that had taken a toll on what had once been a face, now only raw meat with patches of bare skull. Shredded black pants covered the legs, ripped at the crotch, and a half-open green parka protected the torso, but the thing that caught his eye was the white clerical collar on a black shirt.
"A minister?" Dodee asked.
He shrugged, looked inland for a landmark, and found one in a gray beach house with a widow's walk just over the sand berm that separated beach from road.
"C'mon." He motioned to her. "Let's get back to the car and call the police."
"You go. I'll stay here in case a wave starts to drag him away."
He turned to the foam-streaked sea. "Tide's going out." Already the reach of the crashing surf had receded from the time they had started walking. "Nothing to worry about."
"You go, I'll stay, just in case."
"This is crazy. The body's not going anywhere--"
"I'll stay," she said, turning her back to the wind. "Someone should keep watch with him."
"This is crazy."
"You already said that, sweetheart."
"All right, you go, I'll stay."
"No, you can make the trip faster."
He held out his hands. "This is craz--you'll freeze your rear end off."
She pulled up the collar of her coat. "It's not getting any better with you standing here arguing."
He stared into her big blues for a moment--no give there--then shook his head and lumbered off into the bite of the wind, swinging back to her after ten paces.
"Don't touch anything."
She turned to him. "Go."
"I mean it, Dodee, don't touch anything."
She crossed her eyes.
He let out a sigh and started out again.
At least he had ordered her to leave everything alone.
Oh yeah, a lot of good that would do.
The wet, gravel-filled sand, just above the waterline, gave under his feet, making the slog hard-going. The Maryland beaches were packed hard, but here in North Carolina it was like marching through chewing gum. And being pelted by salt spray at the same time.
He trudged back to the Lincoln, started the engine, and pushed the heater to high.
Awright, he would live.
And if Dodee insisted on freezing her rear end off, well, he'd be glad to warm it up for her.
He pulled out his cell phone, put in a call to the police, gave them the approximate location and the landmark, then swung the car around and headed south on Old Oregon Inlet Road, passing deserted motels and battened-down beach cottages waiting for the season to start. He found the gray beach house with the widow's walk and turned off onto a side road, pulled up to the sand-berm seawall, and got out.
A gray North Carolina State Police car with two troopers pulled up right behind him. A six-foot-three trooper unfolded himself from the front passenger seat, sergeant stripes on his uniform, and tugged a wide-brimmed hat so far down over his brow it gave the appearance his head was deformed. Dark eyes stared out of a suntanned face marred by a white one-inch scar on the jawbone of his right cheek.
"You James P. Dandy?" he asked, name tag of "Atwater" above his right pocket.
Jim pointed toward the ocean. "I think it's right out here on the beach."
Sergeant Atwater motioned for the second trooper to follow and they headed up a wooden ramp leading over the sand berm.
"My girlfriend insisted on staying with the body. Didn't want the surf pulling it back in."
"That's fine," Atwater said.
"What do you think? Someone fell off a boat?"
"Or off a bridge. We have a report of missing person last seen fishing from it. Normally we wouldn't expect the body to turn up, especially here, but with the wind and the currents, you never know."
The second trooper caught up to them as they reached the top of the berm.
"Father Pelican?" he asked.
Below them Dodee hunkered down in her coat, sitting cross-legged next to the body, both high and dry now.
"Could be," Atwater answered, leading the way.
"Pelican's a nickname?" Jim asked.
"Real name, as unlikely as that may sound out here on the banks."
Dodee stood up and Jim wrapped his arm around her. "This is my girlfriend, Dodee Swisher," he said as she snuggled in close.
"Hello, ma'am," Atwater said, tipping two fingers to his hat. He continued straight on to the body. "Not a pretty way for a peaceful priest to end up."
"You knew him?" Jim asked.
He nodded. "Just about everyone in the area did. A good guy. My wife thought he could walk on water." He blinked at them. "Didn't mean that to sound disrespectful." He turned to the second trooper. "Leroy, want to check out the pockets?"
One side of Leroy's lips curled as he looked up at his six-foot-three chief, but it really wasn't a question. Leroy knelt down and started going through the pockets, pulling out handfuls of sand along with a rosary and a ring of car keys.
Dodee looked up at Atwater. "You said a priest?"
"Yes, ma'am, Father Pelican, although without identification, it's hard to tell from the condition of the body."
She turned in Jim's arms and tilted her face up to him. "How do they know his name?"
"He was last seen fishing from a bridge."
Leroy extracted a black wallet from the back pocket. He brushed the sand off and glanced inside. "Leslie Pelican," he said, handing it up.
Sergeant Atwater studied it a moment, then turned to Jim and Dodee. "What can you tell me? I mean, you just found him here in the sand?"
"We were walking and saw something rolling in the surf," Jim said. "It disappeared by the time we got here, but then a wave brought it in."
"You found it like this?"
Dodee nodded. "Yes."
"Looks like it was rolled over," Leroy said.
Jim squeezed Dodee's arm to keep her mouth shut. "I did that. I wanted to make absolutely sure there was nothing I could do."
Atwater's dark eyes leveled on him. "Are you a doctor?"
Jim shook his head. "I'm an emergency medical technician in Maryland and a semi-retired physical therapist."
"Uh-huh. And that's all you did?" Sergeant Atwater peered down at them from his full six-foot-three height. "Just rolled the body over. Nothing else?"
"No," Dodee said, "nothing else."
Jim studied the corpse for a moment, then stared into the big blues glaring back at him.
"We didn't disturb anything else," she said again.
Which was bullshit.
The arms, which had been in disarray, were now neatly placed on the corpse's belly, and the ankles, which had been twisted, were now side-by-side.
Atwater ran a finger over the one-inch scar that marred his right jaw line. "You all have a house down here?"
"Just tourists," Dodee said.
The sergeant nodded and pulled out a notebook and pen. "I wonder if I can get your names." He found an empty page and handed it to Dodee. "Names and addresses, please. Where are you staying?"
"Manteo," Jim said, "at the Tranquil House Inn. We're here with a weekend Elderhostel group studying cooking."
"They're a series of learning adventures held all over the world for those over fifty-five."
Dodee handed back the book with their addresses and the name of the hotel. "A priest, you said? An Anglican priest?"
"He was a Catholic priest, ma'am, Father Leslie Pelican." Atwater studied the book a moment, then put it away. "Thank you for your help. If we have any further questions, how long will you be at Tranquil House?"
"Just the weekend," Jim said. "We leave Monday morning."
He took Dodee's hand and started back to the car.
Did Atwater believe her about not moving the body?
And what about that look on Dodee's face when she asked if he was an Anglican priest? He had seen that look before. It was the look that had gotten him into trouble on past Elderhostels as she meddled into police business.
But not this time.
She turned to him when they were in the car. "I can't believe he said Father Pelican was a Catholic priest."
"Don't go into it, Dodee. It's none of our business." He put the car in reverse, waiting for her to continue in spite of what he said, but she pursed her lips, nodded, and turned to the windshield.
He backed down past the police car and turned around.
Only, she had given up too easily.
He shifted into Drive.
Something not right here.
He put his foot on the brake and draped his arms over the steering wheel. "Okay, why can't you believe what Atwater said--no, forget it. I don't want to know."
He drove down to Old Oregon Inlet Road, checked for traffic, none on this cold, blustery day, then draped his arms on the wheel again.
"Okay, you gonna tell me?"
She smiled with the tips of her lips turned down. "Tell you what, sweetheart?"
"Why you can't believe the sergeant said he was a Catholic priest?"
"But you said you didn't want--"
"Okay, I wanna know. You going to tell me or drag it out? Why can't you believe--"
"Because Catholic priests are celibate men."
He blinked. "You're saying he wasn't celibate?"
"I'm saying he--she wasn't a man."
Drop me a line.
[Bloody Bonsai] [Killing Thyme] [Peter E. Abresch Bio]
[Painted Lady] [What is an Elderhostel?] [New Announcements]
[Links to Other Sites]