A Terrible Find
There came a crunching sound to Claudia's left. She stopped suddenly and turned. In the pale glow of the moonlight, nothing was visible, yet she had a strange feeling someone was watching her. She gulped nervously. Perhaps McGovern knew she had followed him from the warehouse in town.
She pushed her way through the vines flanking the garden of the old mansion. Not a light could be seen inside, but Claudia knew the killer had to be in there. His car had gone up to the building, even though she couldn't see it now. She just had to find proof that he had killed the victims and get it to the police in time.
There came another crunching behind her. She spun, but again no one was there. "Stay strong," she told herself as bravely as she could, "It's all in your head, Claudia. He doesn't know you followed him."
She took a deep breath and pushed the last set of vines away. There was the mansion right before her...
And then suddenly, a hand was clamped roughly over her mouth from behind. Another hand grabbed her around the waist. "Gotcha, you little pest," McGovern snarled murderously in her ear, "You should never have followed me here. Now you'll pay a huge price..."
"Hey Nicki, you paying attention to the job?" came the call to her left.
"Oh, yeah, of course," Nicki Price lowered the book she was reading and glanced over the length of Coronado Beach at all the swimmers enjoying the bright summer day. "Doesn't look like any problems," she announced, "It's amazing how well-behaved most people have been here since I came down."
"Well like I said on-line, Nicki, this is a nice, quiet beach with very few if any problems," Samantha Koppel spoke up from the back of the lifeguard tower, "In the three years I've been a full-time lifeguard, there've only been about two or three major disturbances. Unless the bigger beaches to the south, everyone here's well-behaved and clean."
"And handsome too; hello there, guys," to Nicki's left Jessie Greenbriar waved dreamily to several handsome boys that ran by with surfboards. "Yeah, I guess you could keep reading half the day," she told Nicki, "Lord knows you're really into that book."
"I've always loved the Claudia Waterman series," Nicki confessed, "And they said this one was going to be good."
She lowered the book nonetheless and stared blissfully out into the ocean. About two dozen people were swimming about in the section of the beach she and her friends were responsible for, and all of them seemed to be in fine shape. Yes, she thought, her summer as a lifeguard was going quite smoothly indeed.
A brisk sea breeze ruffled through her long blonde hair as she raised the book back up and started reading it again. She'd gotten a call from Samantha back in May, inviting her down to Coronado Beach for the summer. Samantha had moved away from Nicki's neighborhood back home in Shadyside four years ago, but the two of them had remained close friends on-line. Initially Nicki's parents had been a little reluctant about having her away for three months, but Nicki had put their minds largely at ease by promising to call every day until the end of the summer (she'd agreed to return from Florida exactly a week before her senior year of high school began). Samantha's family had made quite a bit of money in real estate since settling down in Coronado Beach, and thus were now the owners of a large beach house near the beach. It had been in there that Nicki had been spending the last month and a half. Almost from the first day, Samantha had made sure to introduce her to Jessie, who'd become her best friend in Coronado Beach over the last four years. It was an interesting matchup as Nicki saw it; Samantha, stocky and introverted with short brown hair that often made people confuse her for a boy when outside her lifeguard uniform, was more the type of person to keep to herself, whereas popular attractive Jessie, with long, thick curly red hair and a million dollar smile, was very much the life of the party in town and attended almost every social gathering the local teenagers went to. Nonetheless, she and Jessie had become friends very quickly themselves. She and Samantha had been working as lifeguards for the last three seasons and had convinced Nicki to join them in it while she was there. Nicki had heartily agreed; she was an ace member of the swim team back home anyway. And so for the last month and a half now, she'd proudly worn the blue bathing suit of the Coronado Beach Lifeguard Department in protection of the beach's swimmers.
Something caught her attention just outside the tower. "You guys hear that?" she raised her hand, concerned, "Sounds like somebody's crying."
"Yeah, I hear it too," Samantha glanced around, but Nicki had seen it first: a small boy of about five standing about ten yards away, sobbing. She jumped up and bustled down the ramp and over to him. "Hello there," she bent down to his level and greeted him gently, "Don't cry. Are you lost?"
She glanced around, and couldn't see a parent anywhere. The boy didn't say anything and in fact looked apprehensively at her. "It's OK, I'm not going to hurt you," Nicki told him softly, "My name's Nicki, and I'd like to help you find your mommy. So what's your name so I know who to look for?"
The boy looked uncomfortable giving it to a stranger, but mumbled softly, "Jacob."
"How about your last name?"
"Jacob Lister. That's a nice name," Nicki turned to the tower and nodded at her friends to put out an APB. Samantha immediately scampered for the tower's radio. "OK, Jacob, my friends up there are going to try and find your mommy," she plopped down on the sand next to him, "I'll keep you company until she shows up, is that OK?"
"Guess so," he mumbled softly without looking at her.
"That's wonderful," she smiled warmly at him. "You ever draw on the sand?" she asked him, "I did when I was your age. Why don't we play a little tic-tac-toe? Come on, it'll be fun."
She drew the basic outline of a tic-tac-toe board in the sand. "You can go first," she offered him. He drew an X in the center square. She countered with an O in the top right. He put an X in the top center. Deciding to let him win and feel better, she drew her next O in the bottom right. "Very good, Jacob," she commended him as he completed the tic-tac-toe, "Why don't we do another one then?"
"Jacob!" came a relieved cry. A woman rushed straight across the sand towards the boy and hugged him close. "Don't ever run off like that again and scare me!" she breathed between excited gasps, "I was so worried!"
"I'm sorry, Mommy; I thought there'd be shells over here to look at," he told her.
"It's all right," she kissed him. "Thank you for finding him," she commended Nicki, "I got the message up the beach; I can't thank you enough...!"
"You don't have to, Mrs. Lister; we aim to help anyone who needs it," Nicki smiled, "The two of you have a nice day here at Coronado Beach and stay close to each other."
Mrs. Lister nodded firmly and led her son off up the beach. "You really enjoyed playing with him, didn't you?" Jessie was all smiles as Nicki ascended back into the tower.
"I like working with kids, Jessie; they kind of bring back a good feeling about my own childhood," Nicki admitted, picking her book back up, "I'm glad it turned out well."
"Yeah, it's all too easy to get separated here on a busy day," Samantha agreed, scanning the horizon for anything out of the ordinary in the water. A parent gets distracted for just a little while, and when you turn around, your kid's gone."
There came a thump as a beach ball landed against the side of the tower's walkway. There came a shuffling of feet as one of the players at the nearby volleyball net ran over to retrieve it. "Hello, ladies," a familiar voice greeted the three of them. "No problems today, I guess."
"Nope, nothing to worry about yet, Adam," Jessie was blushing. Nicki couldn't blame her. Ever since she'd arrived at Coronado Beach and seen him for the first time, she'd found Adam Marshton to be easily the handsomest boy in town. With slick brown hair and a strong build, Adam came from a wealthy family, Samantha had explained to him, and thus was able to spend a lot of time on the beach, and so she'd seen him almost every day since she'd arrived. "Hi there, Nicki," he greeted her now, making her blush herself, "I saw you helping that boy; that was really sweet of you to comfort him like that."
"Thank you," she stammered to keep a straight face, "You know our codes as lifeguards; anything we can do to help beachgoers."
"Yep, and so far this summer you seem to be doing pretty good," Adam leaned against the side of the tower, "Hey, like to remind you, we'll be having a party out here later tonight; you're more than welcome to come."
"Well, we'll see what comes up," she shrugged, "I'd like to if I could, though."
"You'll like it, trust me, Nicki," he assured her, smiling at her in a while that made her feel like melting.
"Hey Adam, are we going to play or what!?" one of his teammates shouted at him.
"Right," Adam picked the beach ball back up. "Catch you girls later," he called to them in parting before running back to his group. Nicki sighed dreamily, wishing he could stay longer. "Yeah, he is the handsomest," Samantha sighed as well, "I've wanted to ask him out ever since I moved here."
"Too bad he's stuck with that snob Heather Rundle," Jessie grumbled, "They've been going steady for three years; no reason for them to stop now."
"Well, we can always dream, I guess," Nicki said softly and dejectedly. Heather was easily the most popular lifeguard in the Coronado Beach staff, and spent all her time when around the others putting them down over it. Nicki herself had been the subject of some of her venom ever since she'd arrived for the summer. She was glad they worked separate ends of the beach, and thus wouldn't have to put up with each other that often.
"Hey, something's going on over there," Samantha announced, pointing. Nicki snapped out of her stupor and followed her friend's finger to the waterline about fifty yards away, where people were starting to congregate, some of them screaming. "Something's not right," she announced, rising up again, "Jessie, get on the horn and see what anyone knows; Sam, let's check it out."
She dashed down the ramp to the sand, Samantha right behind her. "Excuse us, lifeguards, let us through," she announced, clearing a path through the crowds, "Coronado Beach lifeguards, what's...oh my God."
For lying in the sand before her was the dead body of a man, terror frozen on his face and a grievous bloody wound in his chest...