When Ward laid his bloody shirt on the ground in front of Trisha, all he said was, “Your little guy didn’t make it. Something got him.” He pulled back the material just enough to show her the baby possum’s face.
Trisha’s face crumpled and tears started. Leann and Teri, as before, each took a side of her, hugging her between them.
“It’s my fault,” Trisha said. “If I’d closed the door. . .”
“I played the blame game when my son died,” Leann said. “It’s pointless. It was an accident. No one likes to admit that bad things just happen with no rhyme or reason, but they do.”
“I did the same thing,” Teri said. “If I rested more, ate better, was a better person, I wouldn’t miscarry. But it doesn’t work that way.”
“And everyone makes mistakes,” Leann said. “None of us are perfect.”
Saffron tried to comfort Trisha. “My guess is that a raccoon opened it. They’ve done it before to get in a cage for the food.” It was a lie, but it could happen.
“Raccoons can get into almost anything,” Leann said, starting to lead Trisha to the lodge. “One dumped my garbage can and made a mess.”
“Too clever for their own good,” Teri agreed. “Tore open my trash bags at the curb for chicken bones.”
Their voices faded as they left the area and took a path across the open meadow that led to the lake.
Ward turned to the three sisters. Avery still hovered close to Brie. “You girls have a problem. And you need to tell Trisha that she didn’t leave the cage unlatched. Someone opened it and took out the possum so that he could kill it.”
“Someone?” Avery asked.
“A raccoon doesn’t impale a body to a tree,” Ward said.
Currie held up the butcher knife she’d hidden from view. “From the kitchen.”
“But why would someone hate a possum?” Avery asked.
“A possum. Rabbits. It doesn’t matter. Whoever killed them needed to release violence. He needed to kill.” Ward raised an eyebrow at Currie. “You girls might be trained in self-defense, but most people aren’t. What if your killer decides to stab a person instead of something small and furry?”
Avery hunched his broad shoulders. For having such a muscular build, he didn’t strike Currie as intimidating. The caricature of a silverback gorilla fit him so well, she mused. His intellect overpowered his physique.
“We’ll have to protect everyone somehow,” he said. “Keep an eye over them.”
Ward shook his head. “How? Are we all going to sleep on the floor of the main lodge so that no one can sneak around in the dark? And if we stand watch, what if we assign the killer a turn? We don’t know who he is.”
“Or she,” Brie said. “There’s no reason a woman couldn’t have killed the rabbits and the possum.”
“No,” Avery disagreed. “A woman wouldn’t do this.”
“A sick woman could.”
Ward pushed his point. “If I bubbled with hatred and wanted something to hurt, when animals didn’t do it for me anymore, I’d go for sweet, little Della. I could probably cart her away under one arm, and then I could take my time with her.”
Currie hugged her arms across her breasts. It was too horrible to think about.
Avery grew angry. “Why would you say something like that? Why upset the girls like that?”
“Because his father’s a cop,” Brie said. “He knows how sick people can be. And he’s right. We can’t protect our guests. We need to think of their safety and send them home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” Avery said.
“Me neither.” Ward’s response surprised Currie.
“What then?” she asked.
Ward shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’ve watched Teri and Leann, Frank and Russ. We’re all getting better here. If we leave, it’s too soon. All the problems will come back to drown us.”
“At least you’d be alive to struggle through them,” Brie said. “We can’t afford to endanger a guest’s life. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Maybe you should leave the choice to them,” Avery said. “The ones who want to stay can, and the rest can get out of here to safety.”
“One of the ones who stays could end up dead,” Brie snapped.
“Couldn’t we call the police and tell them what happened?” Saffron asked. “They know how to protect people.”
“What would you tell them, that someone killed some rabbits and a possum?” Ward ran a hand through his dark hair. “They’d take it seriously, but they couldn’t station someone on the island until something worse happens, and then it’s too late.”
“So what’s left?” Currie asked. “How do we let people stay in good conscience if we can’t protect them?”
Saffron licked her lips. “There might be a way.” She glanced nervously at Ward and Avery.
“Neither of us thinks that this place is exactly normal,” Ward said. “We’ve talked about it. I don’t know what you girls do, but it’s not the usual.”
The sisters looked at each other. They’d run this island for as long as they could remember, and no one had questioned them before. What made Ward and Avery suspicious of them?
“Quit trying to cover for us,” Avery said. “Is there something you can do to keep us safe?”
Saffron cleared her throat. “Well, I happen to have a strong bond with the animals on the island. I could ask the wolves to guard each cabin at night. They’d guard the animal nursery too.”
Ward and Avery did a quick double-take, but didn’t comment.
“Mom wouldn’t like that,” Brie said. “It would change the flow of Nature here.”
“Mom wouldn’t like it if a guest was murdered either,” Currie said.
Brie frowned. “I’m not so sure that would bother her.”
“True.” Saffron chewed her bottom lip. “Mom believes people should take care of themselves.”
“She thinks everything should take care of itself,” Currie said.
“Hold on a minute!” Ward couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Your mother would rather let a person be murdered than have a wolf protect him?”
“You’d have to know Mom.” Currie sighed. “But it would just be for this one time. Nothing like this has ever happened to us before. Let’s hope it never happens again.”
Brie glanced sideways at Avery. “One time wouldn’t make that much difference.”
Currie stared in surprise. Brie, the defender of rules and regulations, was willing to bend them this time. She turned thoughtful eyes on her sister, and Brie flushed, embarrassed. And then it dawned on Currie. Brie was attracted to Avery! Why hadn’t she seen it before? The truth was too obvious. She missed it because she’d been too busy fighting off her own attraction for Ward.
Saffron wrung her fingers together nervously. “So you think it would be all right? I could ask the wolves to guard over us at night?”
“We’ll do a little bit of everything,” Brie decided. “We’ll gather the guests together and tell them what happened and what our fears are. We’ll let them decide if they want to stay or go. If they stay, Saffron can make sure they’re safe at night. During the day, we’ll suggest that they never wander off alone.”
“Even staying in pairs isn’t that safe,” Avery said. “What if they’re with the killer?”
“I can get some help during the days,” Saffron said. “Not protection, but the birds would watch over people and raise a ruckus if someone needed help.”
Ward and Avery raised their eyebrows but didn’t say anything. A wise choice. What could the girls tell them?
“Okay, it’s settled then,” Brie said. “We know what we’re going to do. Let’s do it.”
After breakfast the next morning, Brie asked the guests to stay in the dining room for an announcement. “There won’t be any morning classes,” she said. “We have something of importance to discuss with you.”
The guests finished their coffee at leisure and visited among themselves until Brie went to stand before them. “We have a problem on the island that we’ve never had before,” she told them. “One of you has a need for violence that erupts into a killing spree. First, the killer butchered a mother rabbit and her babies.”
“Is that how you ended up with a bunny in your kitchen?” Price asked.
“Yes, he escaped somehow and scratched at our kitchen door.” Brie took a deep breath. “I talked to Trisha about the baby possum in the animal nursery last night. I couldn’t let her think she’d been negligent and blame herself. Someone took the possum from his cage and impaled him to a tree.”
Della gasped and Russ put an arm around her thin shoulders.
“The thing is,” Brie continued, “that so far, the killer has been satisfied by killing animals. But we don’t really feel comfortable that he won’t grow more volatile and hurt a human being. We can’t honestly say that we can guarantee your safety for this visit.”
“Hold on a second. You think that one of us might be a murderer?” Ted asked.
“I don’t know,” Brie said. “Maybe he’s never killed before, and maybe he never will. But butchering small animals is disturbing, don’t you think?”
“So what are you telling us? That you’re shutting down the island?” Ted asked.
“We’ve talked among ourselves, and we’ve come up with ways to protect you at night.”
“You girls aren’t going to try to stand guard, are you?” Price asked. “Look at you. Five women. What would you do against a killer?”
Brent moved closer to Thora and took her hand. “You’re not going to stand guard, are you?”
“You’re silly. I have to take naps in the afternoons and I go to bed early every night. What good would I be?”
Brent let out a breath of relief.
Brie nodded to Saffron, who stepped before the group. When Brie slid back beside Currie, she linked an arm through hers. Currie gave her sister a small hug. Brie came off as self-sufficient and able to handle anything, but she was rattled.
“This is going to sound a little unusual,” Saffron told their guests, “but we’ve lived on the island for so many years that we have a special affinity with the animals here. The wolves have agreed to stand guard over each of your cottages at night.”
Price leaned forward in his chair. “Wolves?”
“A wolf will guard each cabin. If anyone approaches it other than its occupant, the intruder will risk a nasty encounter.”
“The wolves won’t attack us, will they?” Trisha asked.
“No, wolves are naturally shy. They usually avoid people. Believe me when I tell you that they don’t want to interact with you anymore than you want to deal with them.”
“What about during the day?” Ted asked. “We’re all off doing something different. What if the killer attacks someone during the daylight hours?”
“I’ve thought of that. And the blue jays and crows have volunteered to watch over you. And, if you stay in groups of three, even if one of you is the killer, you should be safer.”
“What’s a blue jay going to do against a guy with a butcher knife?”
“They’ll call for backup,” Saffron said. “If someone’s in trouble, they’ll raise the cry, and other animals will respond.”
“And do what?” Ted asked.
Saffron gave him a level stare. “Would you really want every animal on this island to hunt you down?”
“Got you. Of course, the person could be dead by then.”
“Exactly, and that’s why we don’t feel comfortable promising that we can protect you. We can’t. That’s why we want to make you this offer. If you want to stay--and a few people have already told us that they don’t want to leave--we’ll do everything we can to ensure your safety. But if you’d rather leave, consider your stay on the island free, since we haven’t had time to accomplish what we meant to, and Emeralda will take you back to the mainland on the ferry this afternoon.”
People started talking together in small groups. Finally, Ted said, “I love it here, and I think you girls are great, but you’ve already got my head where it needs to be. I didn’t come here to fight for my life. I already did that with the old ticker, and I don’t want to push my luck. I’d rather leave.”
“I’m staying,” Mandy said. “I haven’t felt this good about myself ever, and I think I can feel even better. If I go home, there’s no more progress.”
“I’m staying too,” Teri said. “I haven’t finished the quilt or the landscaping. And I like it here.” She looked at Mandy. “I’ll work with you in the gardens if you’ll work with me on the landscaping.”
“Deal,” Mandy said.
Leann shrugged. “I need closure for my son’s death and for me to heal. If I leave now, things will still fester. Count me in.”
To Currie’s surprise, everyone decided to stay except Ted and Price.
“I know I’ve just started to do better about Lyssa,” Price said, “but I’m a businessman. I’m not good at wrestling crazies to the ground. Lyssa had a death wish. I don’t.”
Ted grinned. “We all know the true reason. You just can’t stick around this place if I’m not here.”
Price groaned. “That was the one thing that almost tempted me to stay. The island with no nagging.”
“You’ve all made your decisions. You feel good with them?” Brie asked. When everyone nodded, she said, “All right. Then we’ll see you at lunch. Remember to stay in groups of three. Two’s not good enough. You might be with the person we’re worried about.”
Emeralda turned a stony face to Price. “Go pack your things.” She gave Ted a curt nod. “You too.”
“Em, I’m sorry. I---“
Emeralda cut Price off. “Currie’s agreed to come too, so that I’m not alone.”
Ward stepped beside Currie. “Me too. I’d like to see a little more of the island. Currie said the ferry’s usually kept in a small cove on the other side.”
Emeralda’s green eyes narrowed. “Sure, why not?” She turned to Ted and Price. “Pack your things and meet me on the back patio when you’re ready.”
A half hour later, Currie and Emeralda led the three men to the path that climbed to Currie’s father’s cottage. The cozy, stone house sat on a cliff that overlooked a small cove. It had been a long time since Currie had visited her father’s home. He always came to the main lodge to see them. Her heart clutched when she saw its rough-hewn, granite walls and its steep roof covered with cedar shingles. The house looked like it was part of the island, just like her father had been.
Ward stopped in his tracks when he saw it. “It’s perfect.”
“That’s one hell of a house,” Price said. “Looks like it popped out of the cliff.”
“The ferry’s in the cove down there.” Emeralda nodded to the path that wound down to the beach. “Keep up.” She strode ahead, and the rest scrambled after her.
Currie, hurrying right behind her, almost ran into Emeralda when she stopped abruptly on the dock. Fingers knotted into fists, Emeralda said, “Damn!”
“What…?” The words died on Ward’s lips.
They all looked at the parts strewn across the ferry’s deck. Someone had sabotaged the engine. Wires popped out here and there on the instrument panel.
“Whoever did this doesn’t have a clue what makes a boat run,” Ted said. “He just pulled and tossed, hoping to hit the right thing. My guess is that he did.”
Emeralda went to the helm and tried to start the engine. Nothing.
“What are we going to do?” Price asked.
Ted looked at Currie. “Your dad ran this thing and took care of it, right?”
“Then he must have spare parts. Where would he keep them?”
“In the work shed by his house.”
“I’ve never met a piece of machinery that I can’t fix if I have enough time and the right parts,” Ted said.
“I’m pretty good with engines too,” Ward said. “My dad’s a tinkerer, always working on cars and lawn mowers. I can help.”
“Let’s see what we can find then.” Ted turned Currie toward the cliff. “If I were your dad, living on an island, I’d have spare parts for everything.”
Currie led them back up the path to the small clearing where her father’s house sat. They went straight to the shed. It wasn’t locked.
“Guess there’s no need,” Ted said. “Nobody comes here.”
When they opened the door and Currie saw the long, wooden box that held her father’s tools, his fishing hat hung on a wooden peg, and the heavy rubber boots he used to wade in the water, tears stung her eyes.
Ward put an arm around her shoulders. “Are you going to be all right?”
A lump caught in her throat, so she nodded.
Ted went straight to the workbench that held spark plugs, wires, clamps, and the sundries that her father used for the ferry. “I think we’re in luck. Your father was an organized man. I’d guess that everything we need is here.”
Currie’s conscience pricked her. “It’s not fair to make you stay and fix the ferry. It looks like a major job. We have a phone for emergencies in Brie’s office. Brie can call to have a boat come for you and Price.” No boat would make it through the rocks and currents to their shoreline on its own, but the sisters could join with the waves and guide it in and out of their waters.
“And leave you girls stranded here?” Ted asked. “My wife would never forgive me.”
“But if you stay, you’re in danger.”
“Price and Ward will help me, won’t you? Who’s going to attack the three of us?”
“Price?” Currie raised an eyebrow at him. “You don’t have to be stranded here. We could have the boat come for you.”
“And have this old fart call me a coward! Hell, no. Besides, it can’t take us that long to fix the boat, can it?” Price glanced at Ted.
“Depends on how much damage the bastard did.”
Price sighed. “Count me in. I might have failed Lyssa, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave you girls in the lurch.”
Emeralda turned on her heel and started to walk away. “That’s settled then. I have things to do.”
Price started to follow her, but Ted said, “Let her cool off, but you’d better watch your flirting, boy. Either you’re serious or you’re not. Girls don’t like to be trifled with. Who knows what kind of mushroom she’s going to pick for you? Right now, though, we might as well get started.” He looked at Currie. “Don’t serve lunch without us.”
“I can bring it out to you.”
“By then, we’ll need a break. Nothing makes me grouchier than working on machines that don’t want to cooperate.”
“Then it’s for sure that we’ll need a break,” Price said. “He’s grouchy enough when he’s in a good mood.”
Gruff or not, Currie thought on her way back to the lodge, Ted Krashor was a good man.