With Caleb Wygal’s new mystery, Death on the Boardwalk, set to release on Feb. 2, 2021, it’s time to pull back the covers and unveil the first chapter for you to read.
There was a rug I wasn’t expecting awaiting me in the alcove by the backdoor of my bookstore as I arrived to start the day. The rug had an art deco pattern of periwinkle and sepia toned multi-colored squares with a tan border. Each square was different. Random. It was a nice rug.
Except for the body rolled up in the middle of it.
The rug rested at an angle across the cement slab in a recessed alcove. When I had grasped one end, I felt something odd. A squishy lump. A tremor ran through my hands, jostling the box of pastries I held. Focus. I set the pastries on the ground.
Acid churned in the pit of my stomach. It was too heavy to be a normal rug.
With a trembling hand, I reached down and pulled a corner back.
I immediately knew who it was, despite the deformation that told me the cause of death. A blow to the head. It was obvious. I saw no other marks or injuries to the exposed area of her body.
She was a regular at my bookstore, Myrtle Beach Reads, and a well-known figure in the local business community. We used to sit and have coffee in the store and carry on pleasant conversations about books, life, family, and various causes she involved herself in.
I’ve read and watched enough murder mysteries to know not to disturb the body. I already had, but I didn’t think I had done anything to destroy or disturb evidence. I figured that most of the evidence lay wherever she got bonked on the head.
I returned the corner of the rug to where I found it, covering her face. I rested a hand on the concrete wall to steady myself. Breathed in. Breathed out.
I poked my head out from the delivery alcove and looked both ways down Flagg Street. In one direction, a woman emerged from a parking garage, head intent on her phone, and crossed the street to the Budget Inn. A golf cart receded in the distance past her. Looking to the south, I saw a golf cart cruising in the opposite direction. A beer truck pulled to a stop behind a bar.
I checked my watch. 7:53. Karen wasn’t due in for another hour.
My first call was to the police. The phone shook in my hand as I dialed 911. I told the dispatcher what I found, and she instructed me to stay there, but not to touch anything. I told her I had no plans of examining the body and hung up the phone. Then, I called Karen and asked if she could come in early. She answered halfway through the second ring and said she’d be in as soon as she could. I didn’t tell her why I needed her.
A salty breeze blew across my skin. I don’t know if the wind or the dead body caused me to shiver. A siren wailed in the distance. Both the police station and fire department were about half a mile away. It wouldn’t take them long to get here. Especially at this time of day when many tourists were still asleep in their hotels.
The rug was half-rolled over Paige’s body. I tried not to look but couldn’t help it. A smear of blood matted her blonde hair. I cringed. I didn’t like to watch when getting my blood drawn at the doctor’s office. I wasn’t a fan of horror or bloody movies and books. Besides that, her body and most of the inside of the rug appeared clean. Sections of the outside, or what would be the underside had the rug been unfurled, were filthy and streaked with what looked like grease.
I tried to imagine a scene where she might have been killed. It looked like someone whacked her right on top of the head. She fell over. Thump. Maybe onto this rug, or the killer carried her to it before rolling her up like a burrito. I pictured it covering the floor of an office. Her office, perhaps.
Then what caused the underside to be so filthy?
The question evaporated from my mind as an MBPD cruiser with its lights flashing stopped at the bottom of the two stairs leading down to the ground. A MBFD Fire/Rescue ambulance pulled up a moment later.
A male officer and a female officer saw me standing there and didn’t tell me to freeze and put my arms in the air when they exited their vehicle. Whew. The woman got out of the passenger side. She rested a hand on her gun as they surveyed the scene.
“Hello,” the guy cop said, raising a dark pair of sunglasses.
“Good morning,” I said. Not like there was a dead body at my feet or anything. I almost asked what brought them this way so early but decided against it.
“I’m Officer O’Brien,” the driver said and then pointed at his partner. “That’s Officer Nichols.”
Nichols nodded but did not speak, her hand still resting on the gun. A trickle of sweat ran down my back, despite the cool air. I had no reason to be nervous. I did nothing wrong, but to think they thought me a suspect didn’t sit well with me. They likely only knew the scant details I gave to the 911 operator. Which was: a guy found a body rolled up in a rug on Flagg Street between 4th and 5th Avenues.
“Please step aside,” O’Brien said.
“Sure thing, officer,” I said and did as he instructed.
I’ve seen both of them around before, though I don’t recall ever meeting either. If I recognized them, I’m sure they recognized me. I tend to stick out.
I stepped off the alcove towards them to get out of their path. It was a little tight with the front bumper of the patrol car parked within inches of the building.
Two firefighters leapt from their truck, grabbed some equipment, and rushed to Paige. They ignored me and focused on her.
Nichols finally took her hand off the gun. O’Brien stuck out a thick hand. I shook it. He had a strong grip I tried to match. He and his partner were in good shape under their bulletproof vests. I’d put on a few pounds over the summer and looked flabby compared to them. Too many visits to the Boardwalk Creamery will do that to you. I couldn’t help it. I walked past their back door every day. The baking waffle cones to me were like the Sirens to Odysseus.
Nichols turned for a closer look at the body while O’Brien barely glanced at it. He expelled a breath and glanced up at the Myrtle Beach Reads sign above our heads. “You know, I can’t remember going in there before.”
“Read many books?” I asked.
“Nah, not really. Just police manuals and such.”
“You should expand your horizons. I could recommend a good book or two to you sometime.”
“I don’t know about that. Between three boys, two dogs, and a wife, I don’t get much free time.”
“Do you like coffee?”
That brought a brief smile. “Of course.”
I hooked a thumb at the building. “Got that too.”
“Is it good?”
“I like to think so. I only brew locally roasted beans made within the last week.”
His bottom lip puckered out. “I’ll have to stop in sometime.”
“Do that. First cup is on me. Probably not today, though.”
“Not likely,” he squinted. He pulled out a paper tablet, flipped a page, and clicked a ballpoint pen. “Tell me what happened.”
“There’s not much to tell. I parked my Jeep back on Chester Street like I always do, grabbed my pastries,” I pointed at the box from Benjamin’s Bakery on the ground beside me, “and came around the corner. I said a few words to Theresa—”
“Who is she?”
“She owns the I Heart MB Tees place two doors down.”
He made a note. “Did she act or seem like anything was amiss?”
“Not that I could tell.”
A rustling sound came from behind me. I turned to see one of the firefighters moving one corner of the rug away from the body. I quickly twisted back to O’Brien and Nichols. I’d already seen more than I wanted to.
He put a calming hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, man. We’ll take care of her. I’m sorry you have to experience this, but your help here could lead us to finding who did this.”
By now, people started to gather around. Not too close, but far enough away that they could see that something was happening without being a part of it. The sight of a police car parked this time of the morning in this area was a rare occurrence. I saw a few familiar faces, and I knew that I’d be the talk of the Boardwalk, at least for today.
I drew a breath.
“There’s not much more to it,” I said. “I saw the rug as the recess came into view. I hadn’t ordered one, so I knew it shouldn’t have been there. I saw it was misshapen as I got closer.”
“What do you mean by misshapen?”
“It didn’t look right. It was fatter than a rolled rug, and it was lumpy.”
O’Brien scrawled a few notes. “Go on.”
“As I stepped up to it, I had a bad feeling. I unrolled it a little, and there she was. Dead.”
His pen traced words on the notepad and finished with a pronounced jab that I figured emphasized the word “DEAD”.
“Did you touch the body?” Nichols asked.
“My hand might have grazed it as I unrolled the rug. I’m not sure.”
“Okay. We’ll have to get your fingerprints, unless they’re already on file?” O’Brien cocked an inquisitive dark eyebrow at me.
He made a note. “No worries. We’ll get them.”
I flexed my fingers. I always hoped I could stay out of the fingerprint database during my lifetime. Chalk up two firsts for today, and it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet.
“I know who it is.”
That got their attention. “Who is it?”
“Her name is Paige Whitaker,” I said. “She worked in the office of the OceanScapes resort two blocks down. Ran their human resources.”
“How do you know her?”
“She comes in here every couple of weeks. She liked mysteries of all sorts. Patricia Cornwell, Agatha Christie, and the like. She was a big fan of Hope Clarke.”
“Sure,” he said, not caring about the victim’s reading preferences. “Know who might have done this?”
“No clue. I knew her but didn’t know her well enough to have an idea of who would do such a thing. It’s terrible. She came in here with her friends from work most of the time. She was a fun person to speak with.”
O’Brien stared at me, chewed on his bottom lip, and closed his notepad. “Okay, I think I’ve got all from you I need for now. I’m sure the detectives will have you repeat what you told me to them when they get here and dive deeper. Try to remember anything out of the ordinary you may have seen on your way here. Even the tiniest detail might be important.”
“What time does your store open?”
“Ten. One of my employees, Karen, should be here any minute. What do you want me to do?”
He stepped around the corner and stared down the length of the building, leaning to the side. “It’s a fairly good distance from here to the front. We should be out of the way back here. It’s up to you if you still want her to open at your regular time. We’ll need you to be available later for further questioning.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Hang around inside for now. Try to go about your business as usual. The detectives and medical examiners should be here soon.” He regarded the gathering crowd. “We need to lock this scene down as much as we can and don’t need you calling all of your friends and relatives to tell them what you found.”
“Absolutely. I’ll go around to the front and let myself in, if that’s okay by you?”
“Yeah, man. That’s fine.”
I turned to walk away, and my shoe scuffed up against the box of pastries.
“Don’t forget those,” O’Brien said, “or Murph here will inhale them.”
“Hey,” the hefty firefighter said defensively, looking up from the body.
As I knelt down to pick up the box, Murph said, “O’Brien, check this out.”
“Excuse us, Mr. Thomas,” Nichols said, “but we need for you to go inside while we investigate.”
“Yes, officer,” I replied and walked away, but not before I saw what had interested them about Paige.
- excerpt Copyright 2021, Franklin/Kerr Press