For a moment it was if she had become rooted to the spot, then, when she realized he had noticed her presence, her senses returned and she wheeled, pelting up the beach with the pail thumping against her bare legs. Her feet twisted in the soft sand, hampering her progress, and in moments she could hear Artie panting behind her, the thud of his pounding feet becoming louder and louder until his fingers touched her arm, then spun her about. "Miss, please stop."
Now knowing she could not outrun him, she stood her ground, tossing her dark locks defiantly. "Why should I even speak to you when you've lied to us? There aren't any burns on your head! Maybe you're not even hurt at all."
To her equal displeasure and amazement, this accusation convulsed Artie with laughterwhich became a cough, a wracking wheeze that continued for such a long interval that she was concerned enough to ask if he were all right. He sounded like her father at the worst of his pneumonia.
"I'll survive," he managed hoarsely after taking several deep breaths further punctuated with short coughs. Having finally regained enough breath to speak, he began again, "Miss-"
"Elly's fine," she responded with all the dignity she could muster, setting her jaw.
"Elly, then. Sit down a minute, let me catch my breath, and I'll explain."
She gave a swift glance toward the top of the rise, which was frighteningly deserted. "I told Kit I'd be back directly. They'll come looking for me."
"I'll talk fast," he responded in a cocky tone while still panting, dropping to a seat in the mixed sand-and-grass, settling cross-legged, waiting for her.
"Haven't you already done that?" she retorted sharply, but knelt down about a yard away from him. Suddenly self-conscious of her bare feet, she tucked them under her skirts and visibly increased her grip on the handle of the tin pail, positioning it as a warning barrier between her and the disheveled young man.
Artie noticed the decisive expression in her wary eyes and the movement of the pail, as he seemed to notice everything despite the dark glasses, and grinned thinly. "You could brain me good with that thing."
"I'll use it if you move an inch," she warned hotly. "Now explain, before I get into trouble."
"It won't take longthere isn't much to tell. Perhaps my hair wasn't completely burnt away, and maybe this mess on my cheeks is more healed than it looks and what you see is equal parts rubbing it nightly with a brick and some stage makeupand maybe what's missing of my eyebrows right at this moment is the result of tweezers, but I promise you there was a explosionalthough it was in a coal bunker, not from diesel fumesand that my eyes are still sensitivehence the glassesand my voice will be this way for a while, according to the sawbones I saw. As for what I'm doing here..." Betty fancied that the dark movement behind those enigmatic smoked lenses were his eyes searching her face. "Elly...will you trust me? Even more importantly, can I trust you?"
At this her heart sank and she swallowed. Was she truly a good judge of character? Just the fact that Artie had lied about his injuries made him suspect. Finally she responded, "I'll trust you, if you promise me that you're not planning to hurt anyone."
It was then a voice rang out. "Elly! El-ly!"
"They're looking for me," Betty exclaimed in despair.
With unexpected quickness, as if he had been already prepared too many times for being caught, Artie had scrambled to his feet and roughly jammed his cap back over his telltale head. "Look, I'm bringing your aunt more clams day after tomorrow, but I have a job at the Madisons that morning, too, so I'll need to arrive as early as I can. If you can meet me out by the oak at sunrise, I'll let you know what's going on."
"Elly!" It was her father's voice now, with an edge of anxiety to it.
"I'm coming, Dad!" she called out in response, then hissed to Artie, "You expect me to come out here at dawnaloneto speak with you? How do I know you won't hurt me?"
He looked at her gravely. "I'm not here to hurt anyone. I'm here to help Dick."
"Dick-" she exclaimed, stunned, but before she could react he had turned, leaving at a jog trot to disappear into the stand of stunted and twisted trees that nosed its way toward the water further down the beach.
Now more puzzled than ever, Betty sprang to her feet, thoroughly brushing sand from her skirt before trudging back up the hill with the pail now swaying limply from her hand. She met her father at the top of the rise, silently enduring her scolding, her mind for the first time in her life not on her father's words. What did Artie Dale have to do with Dickbut even more importantly, how did he think he could help him?
* * * * *
When awakened by the muffled ring of her alarm clock on Saturday morning, Betty's room was still smothered in darkness and she moaned at the idea of rising. Still, a thirst for the truth overwhelmed her sleepiness, and, after silencing the noisy clock she had thrust under her pillows, she slipped from her warm bed, rubbing her arms against the morning chill, to pull up the yellowed window shade and look outside. The red outline of sunrise was traced along the horizon, and as she leaned on the windowsill, resting on her elbows, the outline spread from end to end of her field of vision, brightening the eastern sky from midnight blue to a lighter blue streaked with scarlet and orange, the light silhouetting outcroppings of rock, ships leaving port and the oak tree at the top of the rise.
In stealth she donned warm clothing against the dampness: her middy, cotton stockings, sturdy Oxfords. Before creeping from the room she laid a pre-prepared, hastily-written note on her night stand, saying she had been restless and gone for a walkshe hoped she would return before anyone read it!and snatched her sweater from one of the nails left for that purpose on the back of the door.
Since the front stairs were carpeted, she used that route to venture downstairs, in constant terror lest she should be caught. When the big front door finally closed with a quiet click behind her, she could breathe in temporary relief before treading carefully down the front steps, around the side of the house opposite her aunt's and cousins' bedrooms. Only then did she increase her pace, walking swiftly along the same path she had trod the previous night.
In the early morning hours, the landscape looked different, distant houses silvery against the sloping landscape, most of them with a solitary light burning in each kitchen window. Eddies of mist left over from the night huddled in hollows of the earth and across the bay she could hear the mournful wail from Beavertail, the lighthouse at Jamestown.
As she rounded the thick gnarled trunk of the old oak, she came upon Artie seated in its lee, the bushel basket of clams, covered in seaweed to keep them fresh, forming a footrest for him.
"Hiya, kid. Take a seat."
"I am not a 'kid,'" she told him stiffly, hands clenching. "I'm almost thirteen."
"Then heaven help the fellow who meets you in ten years," he said in a wry voice. He was wearing an oilskin slicker over his stained working clothes and now he slipped out of that garment and tossed it outer-side down on the grass a few feet away from him. "Take a seat. That should be far enough away from me to make you feel safe."
She regarded him warily, then sidled cautiously to her left to sit on the coat. "All right then. What was it you wanted to tell me?"
"What I wanted to tell you? Shouldn't that be what you demanded I tell you?" he rasped genially, then shook his head at her stern expression and continued in more sober tones, "Dick and I were at sea together, in the Merchant Marine. He saved my bacon good at least once," and then he laughed, "but I won't relate the tale because it's of an unsavory nature I suspect your father and aunt would rather you not hear. I'm no plaster saintor is that no surprise to you? But Dick's as square as they come. Anyone who thinks he lifted that necklace has beans for brains. I want to prove that."
"Is that why you've got yourself up like that? So Dick won't recognize you? But why?" Betty inquired.
"I told you the other day, part of this is real. As for the restyou don't know Mr. Richard Burrows except from what you've heard from your cousins. I bunked with the fellow for four years. He'd tell me 'Go away, I have nothing to prove. I didn't do it.' So I'm keeping what the coppers call 'a low profile.'"
A bit of the romance of this rough character hiding his identity struck Betty. She asked, with wide eyes, "Are you A-W-O-L then?"
He laughed. "Where'd you learn that?"
"I read," she responded with dignity.
"That doesn't surprise me. My favorite was always the Police Gazette. As for your question, no, I'm not A-W-O-L. I'm not in the Marine any longerbecause of this," he answered in disgust, indicating his veiled eyes. "Dick left over five months agobut I suppose you know that." Betty nodded, for that part of his tale indeed jibed with what she had already been told. "I intended to stand down next monthuntil some fool of a junior stoker tried something stupid with a pressure gauge. I was helping get people out of the engine room when the darn thing 'coughed' and belched fire in my face. Got sent home half blind with my hair blistered off and my throat a mess; the doc said I'll be lucky if I don't hack up coal dust the rest of my life."
It was difficult to tell who was more surprised when she asked abruptly, "And you're from Massachusetts, aren't you? Not Montauk."
He cocked his head at her, chewing at his lip. "What makes you think that?"
She paused while gathering her thoughts. "When you delivered the clams the day I met you, you said thank you to Aunt Aurelia for the 'tonic.' Kit told me that only people from Massachusetts say 'tonic' when they mean pop."
He snorted. "Ever think of becoming a Pinkerton, kid? I figured those few years in the Merchant Marine burnt the last of that accent out of me, but I guess after a few weeks home it wasn't buried as deep as I thought." He regarded her with new respect and a half-admiring smile, then continued his tale, "When I was halfway presentable in public again, which was a few weeks back, I thought I'd hop the train and come down to visit Dick. What do I find in the smoking car but a brand-new newspaper with my chum's face plastered on the front of it, along with a photo of some necklace he was supposed to have swiped. If someone had accused me of it...heck, I would have laid you even money I might have done it. But Dickno. So instead of Dick's chum, an itinerant laborer named Artie Dale hopped off the train in Newport, looking for work somewhere he might hear something aside from the official stories."
He made fists of the strong hands chapped and cut by weeks of work clamming and doing whatever donkey work the Madisons had for him. Betty sat forward, her eyes wide.
"And have you found anything?" she breathed.
"One thing, and that only aggravating, not anything that would help Dick. There's a certain stableman at the Madisons who'll tell stories for a 'wee dram'..." He glanced at the girl, who appeared puzzled. "Geez, do I have to spell it out? The stupid sot will sell his soul for a shot of whiskey. What he told me is that Dick possibly could get out of this if he admitted just where it was he went off to that afternoonhis 'alibi,' you see."
"Why, Kit and I were discussing that just yesterday!" she exclaimed. "We were wondering why the person he was with hadn't come forward yet."
"What I heard is that he hasn't come forward yet because Dick forbade it being told," Artie said fiercely. "He maintains he's innocent and he doesn't want it known where he was that afternoon or what he was doing."
"Oh, no." Betty expelled a breath, then bit her lip. "Mr. Dale?"
"It's Artie, kid. I save the 'mister' for lawyers."
"Artie, then," she said, too upset to correct him for the repeated, scurrilous 'kid." "I asked Kit this when she first told me the story, and she was angry with me for thinking such a thing...and you may be, too, but-" She took a deep breath. "Could Dick have gone in with a bad crowd? Maybe he was, well...playing cards?"
Artie emitted a reluctant sigh. "I don't mind your asking, but I don't want to believe it. On the other hand," and here he shut his eyes for a moment, "he took up with a guy like me, didn't he?"
Tossing her a wry grin he was suddenly on his feet, hefting the bushel basket. "C'mon, Your aunt needs these and I'm expected at the Madisons. They want some cleanup done on a boat. Now if it were up to me, if you owned something, you kept it up yourself. Ah, but there's the joy of being rich."
Betty picked up the bulky oilskin coat and carried it for him as she accompanied him back up the hill. "So what do you plan to do?"
"About Dick? Keep working and talking to folks."
"For how long?"
"I have nowhere to be any time soon. As long as it takes."
Betty said abruptly, "Dick told us he was planning to leave town soon."
Artie nearly lost his grip on the bushel. He halted in mid step, turning to face her. "When?"
She bowed her head, admitting, "Aunt Aurelia and a group of the neighbors are holding a clambake on the beach the Friday before we leaveKit tells me it's a yearly eventand that's a little less than two weeks away. Dick told CillaKit and I were there that he was planning to go West if things didn't change. He promised Cilla he wouldn't leave until then."
"Damn!" Artie exploded, then to Betty's astonishment, colored in embarrassment. "Excuse my French. In two weeks, you say? That leaves me hardly any time at all." He glanced up toward the house. Lights glimmered in the kitchen and in the back entryway. "Now's the time you might want to hustle back inside. They'll all be busy in a few minutes."
Her expression was one of such puzzlement that it brought back a bit of his good humor. "Run, now!"
She did so, teetering on the uneven track, then clambered up the incline through the coarse grass, once again making a long circuit around the house and mounting the steps of the front porch on careful, noiseless feet. As she eased open the front door, she heard a crash from the rear of the house, as if a bushel of clams had been dropped on the back steps. If there had been anyone in the front parlor or hall to see her, their attention was captured by the noise, for Betty was able to dash up the front stairs and to her room unobserved.
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young