If you want to read the rest of the series, here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26, and Part 27.
The current Mrs. Selwyn McCormick of Des Moines, Iowa, was feeling flustered. She didn't like it.
"You were the one who said I should be friends with her," she said to her husband over dinner. "I asked her to go shopping, and the way she looked at me was like... oh." She choked back what she had planned to say next while the maid set their meals on the table: kale juice for her, steak and potato for her husband.
The clink of the juice glass against the marble tabletop reminded her of the very look she'd received. Not just cold, but.... judging. Mrs. McCormick could never picture Ellie in her head as she was. Instead she always remembered a Renaissance painting of a Venetian noblewoman she'd seen when her husband had taken her to Florence.
Mr. McCormick sliced through the steak, letting the juices ooze under his potato. He set his knife and fork down with deliberate care, and raised his wine glass halfway to his lips. He paused while his wife reached for her glass of kale juice, waited until she had her fingers around the glass.
Mrs. McCormick let go of the juice glass. "I don't know what you want me to do."
"I want you to goddamn think." Mr. McCormick sipped his wine. "Did you ask what she's doing down here? Did you ask how things have been lately?"
Mr. McCormick slammed the table with the flat of his hand, making the cutlery jump and causing some of the kale juice to leap from the top of the glass and escape down the side. "'Cos I asked Geoff, and I got pretty far. She lost her niece in a house fire four months back. She would have died too, but she jumped out of a goddamned second storey window. That's why she's got the limp. Geoff was out, never knew a thing until the police called." Mr. McCormick mashed his potato into the meat juices with purpose. "So Geoff decides she needs a change of scene, they marina-hop all the way down here to the goddamn islands, fresh air and sunshine, and you think she wants to go shopping?"
"Just to walk arou— oh," said Mrs. McCormick. Her lip was quivering.
Mr. McCormick shot her a look over the top of his wine glass. "The limp. Right. And you'd think a clothes horse like you would notice, but all of her clothes are new. Because she lost everything in the fire." He slammed the table again. This time the juice glass jumped, came down awkwardly next to a teaspoon, and toppled over. "But it doesn't goddamn matter, you know why?"
Mrs. McCormick pushed her chair away to avoid the rivulets of kale juice making their way to the table's edge. She was crying now, so she only shook her head "no."
"Because they're leaving tomorrow morning at six AM. The one couple on this island we could have used for an alibi, the only ones who don't know what happened last month, and we haven't networked with them at all. Because you didn't think." Mr. McCormick went to set his wine glass down, only to discover all the convenient spots had been invaded by kale juice. "Maria! My wife spilled her dinner! Mop this up, will ya?" He speared a piece of steak with his fork and chewed it vigorously. "I have one more chance to talk them into staying if I can catch up with Geoff tomorrow when he goes on his run. Otherwise we're screwed."
* * *
They both preferred to get up early. Geoffrey would rise first and go for his run, then he'd return to the boat and they'd do calisthenics together. Pepper's leg still wasn't completely healed, so he'd spot her for some of the exercises. Pepper usually made breakfast and lunch, Geoffrey dinner. Sometimes they'd swim in the afternoon. Sometimes, if Pepper's leg was up to it, they'd take a short walk along the beach, whatever beach the boat happened to be moored next to that fortnight.
They were moving on early this time. An American couple from Iowa had been... cloying. Last night the husband had bought them drinks at the bar of the one hotel at this end of the beach, said he was going to catch up with Geoffrey on his run so they could talk. Geoffrey had joked afterwards that it would help him set a new personal speed record.
It all suited Pepper just fine. It saved her a few steps.
This morning, Pepper was crouched just behind the skipper's seat. It was easiest to find Geoffrey first through the rifle scope, then track back until McCormick was in sight, two hundred and fifty metres behind, but closing.
Pepper waited until McCormick had to slow down to descend the stairs to the beach. The shot was clean, the silencer worked, and she had Todd on the phone before she had the rifle disassembled.
"It's done," she said. She rolled her eyes as she put the silencer into the canvas bag, opened her mouth to speak, then pressed her lips together as she pulled off the plastic gloves she'd been wearing. "No, I didn't tell him. He would have wanted to help." She detached the sight and looked through it. "He's heading for the boat. I have to make sure I'm ready."
She frowned as she tossed the rifle scope into the bag. "He's the one who saved your ass in Sarajevo, you know. I just did some of the legwork." She shifted the phone to her other ear as she worked off the nylon anorak she'd worn for the shooting, turned it inside out to avoid contact with any gunpowder residue, and dropped it in the bag. "But we're even now, right?" She made a face. "Well, thanks for the early retirement benefits. Geoff's here. You too. Bye." She turned the phone off, hesitated a moment, then pulled the back cover off. She was pulling parts out of it and tossing them into the bag as Geoffrey climbed into the boat.
He didn't ask her directly, just lifted an eyebrow at the sight of the bag. "I thought I heard a shot this morning," he said.
"That's why you're back early," said Pepper. "You ran faster."
Geoffrey lifted the tail of his t-shirt and mopped the sweat from his face. "Was it personal?"
"Just making sure I don't owe Todd any favours. He said we're back to even now."
Geoffrey stiffened, the t-shirt still bunched in his hands. "I thought you weren't in contact with him. And I thought we were even with him."
"You were. I wasn't. Now I am." Pepper bit her lip. "I'll explain when we're on the ocean. Anything you want to know. Cross my heart." She glanced at the beach. "This time of day, it'll only be about thirty minutes before someone finds him."
"If it's not on camera already," Geoffrey grumbled.
"No cameras along that stretch. I checked."
Geoffrey sighed out the tension and leaned over to kiss the top of her head. "'Course you did." He stepped towards the ladder. "I better cast us off."