BROADKILL BEACH

 

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Lucas feels a phantom pain beneath the scars on his cheek and nearly winces from memories of the flash fire and the burning meth and the concrete jail cell as he meets Chase Raythorne’s eyes across the room.

“You should consider yourself lucky,” Chase tells him. “You could’ve been locked up a lot longer.”

He hesitates for what he knows is an instant too long before answering.  “Yeah well it was plenty long enough.”

“You get any extra sympathy for those burns?”

Chase’s tone is taunting, and there’s a smirk on his darkly handsome face. He’s wearing a fancy blue sweater and is deeply tanned following a late October golf weekend down south – clear evidence of the kind of money you make practicing law, the kind that also pays for what Chase has promised is “pure as the driven snow” coke in the vial that he’s holding between his thumb and forefinger.

“Sympathy’s the last thing I deserve.” Lucas answers.

“Yeah well it’s still good to have you back.” Chase is still smirking, and Lucas thinks it’s because he knows how talkative he used to be on blow; thinks Chase probably wants him to talk, because he suspects –

“I can’t touch that.” He nods toward the vial. “Drug testing’s a mandatory part of the parole.”

Chase frowns theatrically and says. “Ah . . . shucks” as he slips the vial back into his pocket. And then he stares at Lucas again, his eyes just a bit harder, a bit more challenging.

“So tell me, Lucas, how did you get out so soon?”

He sucks in a deep breath, thinking again of the promise – “I’m gonna’ fix this; make you proud” – that he made to Detective Darrell Brown.

And then he sees the shadow in the faint light just outside the glass door to the deck. And then Jade, sliding the door open and stepping in.

She’s as beautiful as ever even with her hair pulled under the black baseball cap that matches her black shirt and pants and gloves; beautiful even with the gun that she raises in a two-handed grip, and points at his face.

He stares at the gun, then looks into her eyes, seeing but not believing the sideways tilt of her head, or the words – “sorry Lucas” – on her lips, or the flash of the muzzle as the bullet pierces his skull.

* * *

The getaway happens within a minute, with nothing said beyond a few shocked curses from Chase and Jade’s whispered order for him to just get out of there.

They race away in different directions to ensure they aren’t seen together; Jade on the Harley at an unsuspicious pace on the road that runs parallel to the beach, past the few bungalows occupied by year-round residents who won’t be apt to remember her; Chase at a faster clip on the road that leads straight out to the highway.

Half an hour later Jade makes her way to Chase’s sprawling, shingle style house with its straight-on view of the ocean. The Python stolen in the drug raid is tucked into her waistband at the small of her back and her golden hair falls to her shoulders as she pulls off the cap. She feels jittery, but confident in her decision as Chase stares at her.

“Jade . . .What the hell . . ?”

“It was the only way.” She steps into his vast living room with its ocean view. “Because almost everything we worried about was true.”

His lips form a tight line. She imagines the course of his thoughts as he realizes she’s been right from the beginning. After being knocked unconscious in the meth lab explosion, Lucas Paynter had gone to jail fully aware that the massive shipment of pseudoephedrine that became available to half a dozen of the state’s biggest dealers one year earlier was in fact made possible by Chase William Raythorne, Jr., Esq. She had feared as much when she convinced him to pay a visit to Lucas’ Broadkill Beach bungalow, to “poke around Lucas’ head and see if he gives any of it away.”

Meanwhile she’d done some poking around of her own, succeeding ably thanks to the “mentorship” of Detective Darrell Brown, who’s wholly convinced that she’s nothing more than a true-blue fighter for justice and peace.

“There’s no doubt,” she adds. “Darrell suspected Lucas knew something about the shipment and visited him twice at the jail. First to put the idea of squealing in his head. And then to present the deal he was going to get for giving you up.”

She watches as the last bit of color drains from his face.

“Don’t worry, so far they really don’t have enough to hang you with,” she says with a smile. “And now without Lucas they’ve got next to nothing.”

She sees the quiver in his shoulders as he absently sits down on the arm of his antique leather chair. She puts one hand around the back of his neck, puts the other on the buckle of his belt and feels a flash of heat as she remembers the dumbfounded terror on Lucas Paynter’s face the instant before she pulled the trigger.

She wonders if Chase might be just a bit afraid of her as well. The mere thought quickens her heart and her desire as she whispers into his ear.

“The bottom line is I saved your ass. Now I’m gonna’ give you mine.”

* * *

Crazy is as crazy does, Katherine Paynter thinks. And crazy’s something you never really have to explain.

The words run in a loop through her mind as she sits in the front row of Parsell’s Funeral Home and tries to stay calm as Jade McClellan squeezes her hand. She’s always known about Jade’s prodigious abilities as an actress, but she’s truly amazed with her ability to summon actual tears.

She turns her head, sees a fresh one sliding down Jade’s model-perfect face. And then she does a bit of acting on her own – a gentle nod, an I’m all right pursing of her lips – as Jade meets her eyes. Regardless of the blackness in the girl’s heart Katherine has to admit she’s quite a sight in her perfectly pressed Delaware State Police uniform, her bottle-blonde hair pulled into a bun with a few loose strands framing her perfectly sculpted cheeks. It takes just one momentary glimpse into her mind to see the image she’s pretending to project: the trusted face of law enforcement . . . coupled with her presence as a long-term family friend, the first great love of Lucas Paynter’s life.

She just barely suppresses the shudder that comes with that quick glimpse.

Have to stop this; turn it off.

 Stick with the plan.

Which isn’t easy as the organist eases into the finale that signals the end of the service. Not surprisingly, Jade takes her arm, then stands at her side and smiles sadly through still-more fake tears as the people step up to say good-bye.

When it’s over they walk arm-in-arm to Jade’s police car; Jade talking about her absolute determination to wipe out the scourge of illegal drugs that are “ruining so many lives;” Katherine wondering what it would be like to throw a sucker punch and knock her to the ground.

Her living room at the front of the grand old Colonial house is as she left it, with the drapes pulled back from the tall windows that face the canal. By habit Jade assumes she’ll want to go straight to the kitchen and gathering room, which is lined with her prize-winning preserves of fruits and vegetables beside the walk-in fireplace and the desk where she writes and illustrates cookbooks sold at the farmer’s market and gift shops downtown.

But then as planned Katherine nods toward the living room instead, and tells Jade to please sit down as she flicks a switch for the gas logs in the hearth, then opens the bar and pulls out a bottle of the Pinot Noir she’s selected for just this occasion.

After an obligatory “I really shouldn’t even though I’m officially off-duty,” Jade accepts a small glass and sits down and says: “This is the hardest time.”

Katherine takes a hit of the Pinot, knowing what’s coming. “How do you mean, dear?”

“When the services are over, and you’re left alone – when you can’t help but think about how they died. That’s the way it was with my dad.”

Katherine wonders if the girl is intentionally playing with her, and peeps into her mind again. She sees a rush of images from the night Jade murdered her father: the round from the silenced semi-automatic pistol ripping through his neck; the spray of blood that coated the mobile home’s tiny living room; Renny McClellan’s eyes wide with shocked incomprehension of what Jade had done.

The scenes are frightening, but not nearly as frightening as her understanding of Jade’s mindset as she watched the man die – an absolute lack of conscience as she calmly stepped out of the house and drove away, knowing the crime would look as if it had been committed by an intruder.

She’s just about to turn it off when she senses something unexpected – a shakiness around the edges of Jade’s heart.

She’s at least a little scared; wondering how long she can keep it up.

How long before she’s exposed.

The opportunity comes to her in an instant, a chance to go beyond the reading of the girl’s mind and actually step in to it. She shuts her eyes; sees a photo-negative image of Jade’s brain and concentrates on her right temporal lobe, imagining the outline of a door opening toward the amygdalae within: two tiny round nerve centers for the impulses that drive fight or flight impulses of anxiety and fear.

She lingers for just a moment, just long enough for Jade to hear her voice.

You SHOULD be scared, dear.

Because you WILL be exposed.

And then because she’s fully able she squeezes her eyelids tighter and sends a jagged strike of lightening into the center of the girl’s forehead, then purposefully imagines the hot pain radiating throughout the top layer of gray matter in her brain.

She hears a gasping sound, and opens her eyes to the sight of Jade pressing her fingers against her temples.

She pretends not to notice. “I’m not alone, Jade. I can feel Lucas’ spirit comforting me, now that I finally know my affliction will do some good.”

Jade is still frowning in pain, looking a bit confused as she recovers. “Your affliction . . .”

“What else can we call it? This condition that’s ruled my life for 60-odd years? It’s only now that I can turn off the voices and the visions for the most part. The mental chaos was so much worse when Lucas was growing up – making it impossible for me to be the mother he deserved, playing havoc with my mother’s social standing and my father’s political fortunes thanks to the stigma of it all.”

She pauses, her voice shaking despite the careful planning that’s gone into the entire script.

“I know I passed a good bit of it down to my Lucas, who couldn’t resist the pull of drugs. I know that’s why things never worked out for you two, even though you were just the most beautiful couple of kids back in high school.”

Jade summons a new reaction, her face a picture of melancholy in the flickering firelight. Katherine watches for just a moment before her mind goes back to the vision that came to her at Lloyd’s grocery three nights before, when she reached toward the door of the ice cream case and suddenly saw Jade looking back at her; Jade with her arms outstretched and her hands holding a gun; Jade’s voice – “sorry Lucas” – like a whisper before the flash of the muzzle and the blackout that crumpled her to the floor.

She holds onto the vision, as horrible as it is, for a few moments longer before pouncing.

“The point is, I finally have a reason to be hopeful. Because the condition is finally going to do some good. That’s why I wanted you to bring me home, to let you know that Darrell absolutely believes in me.”

Jade’s eyes widen. “Darrell . . .?”

Your Darrell – Darrell Brown,” Katherine says, with a broader smile as she sets down her wine and undoes the top two buttons of her blouse and pulls out the small silver locket that she’s been wearing around her neck. “Believe it or not, we’re going steady.”

“Oh . . .” Jade’s surprise is apparent as she stares at the locket.

“We’ve been an item for the past six months but have kept it quiet. But Lucas’ death has brought us closer than ever, and given us a shared mission.”

She pauses, cognizant of the sudden clench of Jade’s pretty, narrow jaw, and then lowers her voice for a bit of extra drama.

“We’re going to work together expose the killer – you, me, and Darrell. It won’t be hard, because he’s already got a prime suspect in mind.”

* * *

Chase is three drinks into what promises to be a hell of a bender when he hears the crunch of gravel under tires and looks out the windows of his second floor study and sees the unmarked Crown Vic pull to a stop in the driveway.

The jolt is instant – like a hard kick to his solar plexus as he glances toward the yellow legal pad with two pages of notes about legal precedents regarding the use of second-hand informants intermixed with thoughts on the exact words he’ll use to urge the partners of his firm to mount a defense if Detective Darrell Brown actually does acquire enough evidence to destroy his life.

He wonders if it’s already too late as Brown opens the driver’s side door and languidly steps out of the car with a phone at his ear – a sight that coincides with the ringing of the burner phone that he bought to communicate with Jade.

He answers with a faint “what?” and hears a tirade about Lucas Paynter’s “spooky crazy bitch mother” who’s been “screwing that stupid ape” Darrell Brown. She talks in a breathless whisper for half a minute before pausing.

His own voice shakes as he responds:

“He’s here now.”

“Who?”

“Brown. Your mentor. In my driveway.”

The words hang in the air, and with them the insinuation that she clearly overestimated the power of her relationship with Detective Darrell Brown to protect them both.

And then he hears, for the very first time, an uncertainty in her voice.

“I’m worried, Chase.”

“You told me he doesn’t have enough -.”

“It’s not just about Darrell. It’s Katherine . . . she’s done something. To me. Something to my head.”

He thinks of the schizophrenia that Katherine Paynter’s been treated for her entire life; remembers Lucas talking about the “visions” that would send her into seclusion for days on end.

“What do you mean, your head?”

“It’s like she’s in there Chase, messing with me.”

“You’re losing your mind,” he tells her, and hangs up as Brown suddenly looks up from the driveway, meeting his eyes and pantomiming the firing of a gun.

* * *

At the front door Darrell shakes his hands and smiles, giving Chase the faint hope that the thumb and forefinger gun gesture was meant in jest. But then he frowns above the smile and tells him “looks like you’re in it deep, brother.”

He frowns back, doing his absolute best to look confused. “What do you mean?”

Brown shuffles his two-toned wingtips on the doormat and steps into the foyer and shuts the door. And lays out “some troublin’ rumors” that go beyond whatever Lucas would have told him: a disturbingly accurate account about the pharmaceutical company represented by Alexander, Bradley and Raythorne. The vast amounts of pseudoephedrine the company imports from third world countries where corruption is the cost of doing business. The impossibility of tracking every container that comes through the Port of Philadelphia. And finally, Darrell’s assertion that “someone” must of made “one hell of a windfall” from diverting enough of a shipment to “a dealer who’s got about 10,000 junkies on his gravy train.”

He clears his throat. “That’s preposterous, Detective.”

“Hey man – I’m with you!” Brown smiles like a preacher rousing up a crowd. “Though I gotta’ say I can see why people are connectin’ some dots.”

“They’re wasting their time.”

“Yeah, I know, but you understand why I had to come by and lay it out for you. Cause word’s gotten round to the dealer who got blown up in the same fire that burned Lucas Paynter. His family’s out for blood. And gotta’ admit how the dots would lead ‘em to you.”

“I had nothing to do with any drugs, or with Lucas’ death.”

“I believe you, man. I know you guys were friends from way back, even though your lives went different directions. That’s why I wanna’ help you prove you got nothin’ to do with this.”

He leans against the foyer wall, his head as light as cotton, knowing what’s next.

“Come on into the station . . . give us some prints. If we don’t find a match in Lucas’ house you’ll be halfway there.”

* * *

He calls Jade back 20 minutes later, feeling like a deflated punching bag after the back-and-forth that followed Brown’s “invitation” to be printed, knowing his refusal on legal terms wouldn’t have held up in the long run, and knowing that the path he’s chosen is the only reasonable option he has.

He tells her not to say anything, because even a burner phone can’t be trusted, then asks her to meet him back on Broadkill Beach, this time outside a seasonal home that he knows is locked for the winter.

He drives his BMW at a law-abiding pace; watching the traffic all around him, highly alert to the possibility that he’s being followed, but finds the 50 MPH expressway to Broadkill Beach deserted as he heads toward the meeting place.

He parks and heads to a spot slightly sheltered by a low dune, sits down on the sand and looks up at the sky and briefly thinks about Lucas’ love of Broadkill, with its cottages on a ribbon of sand three miles north of his family manse in the far tonier town of Lewes. And then he thinks about the bungalow Lucas moved into the first day after his release. “A little piece of heaven in the middle of nowhere,” Lucas called it. “Where nobody knows about my crazy mind.”

He senses Jade before he sees her, coming up directly behind him, carrying a knapsack, dressed once again in black.

“I’m dead,” he tells her, and stares out at the night sky as he reveals all of the ‘rumors’ that Detective Darrell Brown conveyed to him; none of it amounting to what he needs to bring charges yet, but enough to keep him in Brown’s sights forever.

“Which is why you shouldn’t have done what you did,” he says. “Because I can’t live the rest of my life under a microscope, always knowing I’m going to be exposed. Because, really Jade, Lucas had some information but not nearly enough –.”

The sound of a rapid intake of breath stops him. He turns to see her with another gun in her hand, a semiautomatic, with a silencer. He looks into her eyes and imagines for just an instant that he’s seeing a glimmer of remorse before she shoots him in the face.

* * *

Crazy is as crazy does, Jade thinks. And crazy’s something you never really have to explain.

The words run in a loop through her mind as she slips the Glock she has just used on Chase into her waistband, then reaches into her backpack and takes the Python that killed Lucas and carefully places it in Chase’s still-warm right hand. Then after grabbing his keys from his pocket she goes to his BMW and slips the Python into his glove compartment, which will be searched shortly after his body is found. It won’t take long to tie the gun to Lucas’ killing or to find Chase’s prints in Lucas’ house, thereby giving Lucas’ freak-show mother and Detective Darrell Brown the killer they’re so determined to find.

She slips away on the black Harley that would have been left to her intentionally if her father had died a natural death – which itself wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t confronted her with questions about the fire that burned Lucas and the down payment for her new house and the rumors that a Delaware State Police cop was making good money tipping off meth dealers in advance of busts.

With help from a double shot of Jack Daniels she slips into an addled sleep two hours later, dreaming for the millionth time about the parade where she was crowned as the Cape Henlopen High School Homecoming Queen and her graduation from the Delaware Police Academy and the image of true-blue perfection before awakening to the buzz of her doorbell, and a basket of jarred preserves on her front porch, and the sight of Katherine Paynter’s 20-year-old Mercedes pulling away.

Katherine has left her a note on top of the preserves, thanking her for her “support” during the service. She reads it as she sips her first cup of coffee; thinking of Katherine’s big old Lewes home and her big old fortune and the fact that there are no heirs as she sets the glass jars out on the granite kitchen counter.

And then she sees the odd item at the bottom of the basket. A piece of lined notebook paper with a caricature of Katherine’s round, smiling face surrounded by her long, wiry silver hair. A stupid drawing, reminiscent of those in Katherine’s self-illustrated cookbooks, wrapped around a thumb drive with a rubber band.

She remembers Katherine’s inane promise to give her an advance look at the recipes that will be in the next edition; thinks of how grateful she’ll act the next time she sees the crazy bitch as she slips the drive into her computer, and hears the faint sound of wind and small, lapping waves, and Chase Raythorne’s voice:

“. . . I can’t live the rest of my life under a microscope, always knowing I’m going to be exposed. Because, really Jade, Lucas had some information but not nearly enough –.”

The muffled thwut of the gunshot through the silencer comes next.

She jerkily stands up and looks out the window as a dagger of pain pierces her temples, then staggers two steps before bracing herself with her palm against the wall.

And then she remembers Katherine telling her about the plan to “expose the killer;” and Chase’s fear of being “exposed” and envisions how easy it must have been for Darrell Brown to slip the recorder into the pocket of Chase’s jacket, to run a microphone no bigger than the blunt end of a straight pin up through the top button of his shirt, enabling Chase to save himself by selling her out.

And then she envisions what will certainly happen next. Her arrest, at the time of Darrell Brown’s choosing. Her wrists in cuffs as she’s marched away.

Your heart of darkness, Katherine whispers; a soft, taunting voice in her mind.

Exposed.

Your lying, heartless life.

Exposed – .

“No,” she says, and looks toward her knapsack hanging by the hook in the foyer, and thinks of the Python in the zippered front compartment, wondering how the muzzle will feel at the back of her throat as another dagger of pain pierces her forehead and Katherine Paynter’s voice comes at her again. 

Best to end it, here and now, dear.

Here.

Now.

Dear.

# # #