Murder on Mustang Beach
By Alicia Bessette
Berkley; hardcover; $28.00
Alicia Bessette is the author of the Outer Banks Bookshop Mysteries, a pianist, published poet, and enthusiastic bird-watcher. Before her career as an author, she was a reporter in her home state of Massachusetts, where her writing won a first-place award from the New England Newspaper & Press Association. Her website is aliciabessette.com.
Murder on Mustang Beach, a summer-themed escapist fiction wrapped with a suspenseful mystery, is the second novel in this series after last year's acclaimed Smile Beach Murder. She has lived in the Outer Banks for years, which lends these stories authenticity on how she depicts island life, characters, and its gorgeous setting. It is known for its wild horse population, and these fascinating horses play a large role in this new story.
Cattail Island, located in the Outer Banks, is a popular destination for honeymooners and nature lovers alike, and the pre-summer season is ground to a screeching halt when a newlywed is murdered.
Bookseller Callie Padget launches her own investigation after Geri-Lynn Humfeld, one of her mysterious customers and caretaker of the island's protected wild horses, brings in an irresistible piece of information.
Callie is determined to restore order and safety to her beloved hometown, and she searched for answers, even as they lead her to cast suspicion on her soon-to-be boyfriend Toby Dodge.
Toby's martial arts studio was the scene of the crime, and as Callie digs deeper, he becomes the police's prime suspect. The truth is bringing up troubling questions and she is scouring the bookshop's shelves for guidance.
While this is going on, a well-loved member of the mustang herd - a pregnant mare whose anticipated foal is a symbol of summery hope for locals and visitors alike - could be facing dire circumstances. With Geri-Lynn's help, Callie uneatrths startling secrets surrounding not only the compromised mare, but the murdered newlywed, too.
When another body shows up on Mustang Beach, Callie must race against time to stop a killer from claiming any more innocent lives.
In this excerpt, which is in Callie's voice, she tells of how she met Toby, as well as some history on Mustang Beach: "Running the Mustang Beach footpath was the sweetest kind of torture.
To my right, through the trees, wild horses frolicked in the surf, kicking up sand and seawater. They tossed their manes against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, which twinkled emerald and sapphire.
To my left, Toby Dodge trotted alongside me. His breathing was hardly disturbed, and he had barely broken a sweat. His black shoulder-length hair was tied at the nape of his neck except for one uncooperative strand, which he kept tucking behind his ear. A head taller than me, he'd adjusted his stride to my slower pace, one of many chivalrous gestures that I'd grown to appreciate over the past eleven months, as we'd gotten to know each other.
What was so torturous about this run? I could look, but I couldn't touch. That rule went for both the wild horses and my running companion.
'Middle name?' he asked, continuing our back-and-forth quiz game, which we'd been playing on and off since we first met. 'I'm sure I've asked you this already,' he added, 'but I can't think of the answer.'
'That's because I don't have a middle name,' I said. 'I'm just Calista Padget. Short and sweet.'
'You're short. I don't know about sweet.'
'Ha ha. First job? Wait - I know this. Retail, right? Your mom's gift shop.'
'I swept the floors and kept the shelves stocked. You?'
'Boring: babysitting. Best first date you've ever been on?'
'Hasn't happened yet. But it will in approximately' - he consulted the time on his phone - 'eight hours.'
My stomach fluttered, my head felt out of clouds, and a ridiculous smile, one I couldn't control, made my face feel lit from within. You see, Toby was just coming off a yearlong abstinence experiment. As playful as he could be, he also had a serious side, one that let him accomplish things like start his own business and last a whole year without dating anyone in order to heal from a previous relationship.
That year ended tonight. Which meant that we were going to have our first official date. I didn't know what he had in store, but I needed to be prepared for anything. That's what he kept telling me.
At the end of the two-mile path, we slowed to a walk. The wood chips under our feet transitioned to a ramp that sloped upward. Emerging from the maritime forest, we strolled to the observation platform, and the view stretched open before us. The horizon went on forever, often indistinguishable from sky. Dolphins surfed the breakers, their fins glinting as they acred out of the water. A strand of pelicans swept over the crashing waves. And on the beach, two jet-black mustangs stood head-to-tail, flicking flies from each other's faces.
Mustang Beach is the sole domain of Cattail Island's several dozen wild horses. A few hundred fenced-in acres of pristine oceanfront, plus the surrounding dunes and woods, are theirs alone to roam. They forage for sea oat and pampas grass, acorns and Tinnakeet grapes. They drink from puddles and seasonal pools. They survive thanks to the knowledge embedded in their DNA, passed down through five hundred years of adaptation.
Their survival is also thanks to the fence.
A generation ago, wise Cattailers realized that if they allowed the mustangs to continue comingling with humans, the herd, unique in all the world, would soon go extinct.
The fence isn't there to keep the mustangs in. It's there to keep the people out.
So, as much as I wanted to climb the wood-and-wire barrier and gallop for all that cool liquid turquoise and dive in; as much as I wanted to approach a mustang, tell her my name in a soothing voice, stroke the white blaze between her eyes, caress her velvet nose - I had to settle for simply admiring the postcard-worthy view. Aside from the platform holding us above the dunes, the scene of sea and sky, of sand and horses, probably looked exactly the same as it did three hundred years ago."