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By Sandra Brown
Read by Victor Slezak
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A cheerless drizzle blurred any view of the body on the beach.
Mist formed halos around the lampposts along the pier, but didn't diffuse the glaring portable lights that had been put in place by first responders. In a grotesque parody of catching someone in the spotlight on center stage, they shone a harsh light on the covered form.
A police helicopter swept in low. Its searchlight was unforgivingly bright as it tracked the length of the pier. Its beam skittered over the marina where boats rocked in a lulling current that was out of keeping with the surrounding chaos.
Before shifting out onto the surf, the searchlight cut a swath across the corpse. The chopper's downwash flipped back a corner of the garish yellow plastic sheet to expose a hand, inert and bone-white on the packed sand.
Since the discovery of the body, officers representing several law enforcement agencies had converged on the scene. The colored lights of a search-and-rescue helicopter blinked against the underbelly of low clouds hugging the harbor. Beyond Fort Sumter, a US Coast Guard cruiser plowed through the waters of the Atlantic, its searchlight sweeping across the swells.
TV satellite vans had arrived, disgorging eager reporters and camera crews.
On the pier, the inevitable onlookers had congregated. They vied for the best vantage points from which to gawk at the body, monitor the police and media activity, and take selfies with the draped corpse in the background. They swapped information and speculation.
It was said that the deceased had washed ashore with the evening tide and had been discovered by a man and his young son while they were exercising their chocolate Lab on this stretch of beach.
It was said that drowning was the obvious cause of death.
It was said that it was the result of a boating mishap.
None of these conjectures was correct.
The unleashed Labrador had run ahead of his owner, and it was the dog, splashing in the surf, that had made the gruesome discovery.
One of the spectators on the pier, overhearing the exchanges of facts, fictions, and laments, smiled in self-satisfied silence.
Three weeks earlier
The automatic doors whooshed open. In one surveying glance, Drex Easton took in the hotel lobby. It was empty except for the pretty young woman behind the reception desk. She had a porcelain-doll complexion, a glossy black ponytail, and an uncertain smile as she greeted him.
"Good morning, sir. Can I help you?"
Drex set his briefcase at his feet. "I don't have a reservation, but I need a room."
"Check-in isn't until two o'clock."
"Because…because for the convenience of our guests, checkout isn't until noon."
"Housekeeping needs time to—"
"I realize all that, Ms. Li." He'd read the name badge pinned to her maroon blazer. He smiled. "I was hoping you could make an exception for me."
He reached behind his back to remove a wallet from his pants pocket and, in doing so, spread open his suit jacket wide enough to reveal the shoulder holster beneath his left arm. Upon seeing it, the young woman blinked several times before rapidly shifting her gaze back up to his, which he held steady on her.
"No cause for alarm," he said quietly. He flipped open the wallet that contained a badge and photo ID that classified him as a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He didn't like to overplay this card, doing so only when he needed a shortcut through rules and red tape. It worked on Ms. Li, who was automatically willing to please.
"Let me see what I can do."
"I would consider it a big favor."
Graceful fingers pecked across her keyboard. "Single or double?"
"I'm not picky."
Her eyes scanned the computer monitor. She scrolled down, then back up. "I can have housekeeping service a nice double room for you right away, but the turnaround could take up to half an hour. Or, there's a less nice single available now."
"I'll take the less nice single available now." He slid a credit card across the granite counter.
"How long will you be staying with us, Mr. Easton?"
She was no slouch. She'd noted his name. "I'm not sure. Two other…Two associates of mine will be arriving shortly. I won't know how long I'll be staying until after our meeting. I'll have to let you know then."
"No problem. You may keep the room until you notify me of your departure."
She ran his credit card and proceeded to check him in. She had him initial the room rate on the form and sign his name at the bottom; then she returned his credit card along with the room key card. "That key also unlocks the door to the fitness center on the second floor."
"Thanks, but I won't be using it."
"The restaurant is just down the corridor behind you. Breakfast is served—"
"No breakfast, either." He bent down and picked up his briefcase.
Taking the subtle hint, she pointed him toward the elevators. "As you step off onto your floor, your room will be to your left."
"Thank you, Ms. Li. You've been a huge help."
"When your associates arrive, am I at liberty to give them your room number?"
"No need, I'll text it to them. They can come straight up."
"I hope your meeting goes well."
He gave her a wry grin. "So do I." Then he leaned forward and said in an undertone, "Relax, Ms. Li. You're doing a fine job."
She looked chagrined. "This is only my second day. Were my nerves that obvious?"
"Probably not to anyone else, but sizing people up quickly is a large part of what I do. And if this is only your second day, I'm even more impressed with how you handled a troublesome guest."
"Not that troublesome at all."
He gave her a lazy smile. "You caught me on a good day."
The less nice single wasn't a room the hotel chain would feature in an ad, but it would do. Drex opened his briefcase on the desk and booted up his laptop. He texted Mike the room number, then went over to the window. It afforded a fourth floor view of a freeway interchange and not much else.
He returned to the desk and checked his email in box. Nothing of importance. He went into the compact bathroom and used the toilet. As he came out, the hotel telephone was ringing. He picked up the extension on the desk. "Yes?"
"Your associates are here."
"Good." Sooner than he'd expected.
"Would you like for me to send something from the kitchen up to your room? Perhaps a fruit platter? A selection of pastries?"
"Thank you, but no."
"If you change your mind, don't hesitate to call down."
"I'll do that, Ms. Li. Thanks again for accommodating me."
Although the open drapes let in plenty of daylight, he switched on the desk lamp. He adjusted the thermostat down a few degrees. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror above the dresser and thought he looked presentable, but hardly spiffy. He'd showered and dressed in a rush.
At the soft knock, he went to the door and looked through the peephole before opening it. He stood aside and motioned the two men to come in.
As they filed past him, Gifford Lewis said, "The girl at the desk stopped us to ask if we were Mr. Easton's associates. She's moony for you."
"Anything Mr. Easton wants," Mike Mallory grumbled. "As long as she was offering, I could have done with the fruit platter and pastry selection. You could still call down."
Out of habit, Drex checked the hallway—which was empty—then shut the door and flipped the bolt. "You wake me up at dawn, say, 'Find a place where the walls don't have ears.' And don't waste any time doing it, you said. I don't waste any time, I find a place, and here we are. Never mind the fruit platter and pastries. What's up?"
The other two looked at each other, but neither replied.
With impatience, Drex asked, "What's so top secret we couldn't communicate through ordinary channels?"
Gif stationed himself against the wall, a shoulder propping him there. Mike rolled the chair from beneath the desk and wedged his three hundred forty pounds between the protesting armrests.
Drex placed his hands on his hips, his expression demanding. "For crissake, will one of you speak?"
Mike glanced over at Gif, who made a gesture that yielded the floor to Mike. He looked up at Drex and said, "I've found him."
Mike's tone conveyed all the gaiety of a death knell. The him didn't need specification.
For years Drex had been waiting to hear those words. He'd imagined this moment ten thousand times. He'd envisioned himself experiencing one or more physical reactions. His ears would ring, his mouth go dry, his knees buckle, his breath catch, his heart burst.
Instead, after his hands dropped from his hips, he went numb to a supernatural extent.
Gif and Mike must have expected an eruption of some sort, too, because they looked mystified over his sudden and absolute immobility and silence, which were downright eerie, even to himself.
A full minute later, when the paralyzing shock began to wear off, he walked over to the window again. Since last he'd looked out, nothing cataclysmic had occurred. Traffic hadn't stilled on the crisscrossing freeways. No jagged cracks had opened up in the earth's surface. The sky hadn't fallen. The sun hadn't burned out.
He pressed his forehead against the window and was surprised by how cold the glass felt. "You're sure?"
"Sure? As in positive? No," Mike replied. "But this guy looks real good on paper."
"Sixty-two. So says his current driver's license."
Drex turned his head and raised his eyebrows in a silent question.
"South Carolina," Mike said. "Mount Pleasant. Suburb of—"
"Charleston. I know. What name is he going by?"
That brought Drex all the way around. "Excuse me? What does that mean?"
Gif said, "Means that you're not getting a name until we know what you plan to do with the information."
"What the hell do you think I plan to do with it? First thing is to haul ass to Charleston."
Gif exchanged a look with Mike, then pushed himself away from the wall and squared off against Drex. He didn't take a combative stance, which would have been laughable because Drex was physically imposing and Gif was nowhere near. But he set his feet apart and braced himself as though Drex's self-restraint was iffy and reasonableness was way too much to hope for.
He said, "Hear me out, Drex. Mike and I talked about it on our way over here. We think you should consider…That is, it would be advisable to…The smart course of action would be to—"
"Not a fucking chance in hell."
Louder and with more emphasis, Drex repeated his statement.
Mike shot Gif a droll glance. "Told ya."
Drex's ears had begun to clamor after all. Now that the reality was setting in, his blood pressure had spiked. The window glass had felt cold against his forehead because his face was feverish. The blood vessels in his temples were throbbing. His scalp was sweaty beneath his hair. His torso had gone clammy.
He pulled off his suit jacket and tossed it onto the bed, wrestled off the shoulder holster and dropped it on top of his jacket, loosened the knot of his necktie, and unbuttoned his collar, all as though he were preparing for a sparring match, which, if necessary, this argument might result in.
Willing himself to at least sound composed, he asked again, "What name is he using?"
"Assuming it's him," Mike said.
"You assume it's him, or you wouldn't have suggested this secret meeting. Tell me what you have on him, starting with his name."
Mike Mallory was an all-star when it came to excavating information from a computer, but a people person he wasn't. He harbored a general contempt for his fellow man, considering most to be complete morons, Drex and Gif being the only possible exceptions.
He was so good at what he did that Drex put up with his truculent attitude and lack of social graces, but right now he muttered an epithet that encompassed both Mike and Gif, who, on this point, had taken Mike's side.
"Fine," Mike said, "call us nasty names. We're thinking in your best interest."
"I'll think for myself, thank you."
"After you hear everything, you may decide against taking matters into your own hands."
Mike shrugged. "Then it'll be your funeral. But I'm not digging your grave, and I'm sure as hell not climbing in with you. Fair warning."
"Fair enough. I'll find out his frigging name myself. Just put me on the right track."
Mike nodded. "That I'll do. Because I don't want him to get away, either. If it's him."
Drex backed down a bit and rolled his shoulders, forcing them to relax. "Does the mystery man hold a job?"
"Nothing I could find," Mike said, "but he lives well."
"I'll bet," Drex said under his breath. "How long has he been in Mount Pleasant?"
"I don't have that yet. He's lived at his current residence for ten months."
"What kind of residence?"
"If so, I couldn't find it."
"Cash purchase, then."
Mike raised his beefy shoulders in an unspoken I guess.
Gif speculated that maybe the property had been inherited, but none of them really thought that, so no one pursued it.
Drex asked, "What's the place like?"
"Based on the real estate listing, it was pre-owned, not new," Mike said. "But an established neighborhood. Upscale."
"Million and a half and change. Looks spacious and well kept on Google Earth. It's all on here." Mike groped beneath his overlap for his pants pocket and produced a thumb drive.
Drex took it from him.
"Won't do you any good without the password, and you're not getting it till we've talked this out."
Drex scoffed. "I can get the password cracked. When applied to you, the word geek sounds ludicrous, but you're not the only computer geek around, you know."
Mike raised his hands. "Be my guest. Get a geek to go digging. But if you're found out, how are you going to explain your interest in this seemingly law-abiding citizen?"
"A bribed hacker won't care what my interest is."
"A bribed hacker won't blink over taking your money, then—"
"Stabbing you in the back with it," Gif chimed in.
"Your hacker would get the man in South Carolina on the phone and tell him there's a guy in far-off Lexington, Kentucky, who's spying on him."
Gif picked up. "For more coin than you're paying him, the hacker would sell you out."
"Then it would be you, Special Agent Easton," Mike continued, jabbing a stubby index finger at him, "who would be spied on, caught committing God knows how many violations and crimes, civil and criminal, and that would squash this and any future chance you might have to finally nail this son of a bitch, which has been your main mission in life." He wheezed a deep breath. "Tell us we're wrong."
Drex sat down on the end of the bed, propped his forearms on his thighs, and dropped his head forward. After a moment, he looked up. "Okay. No hacker. I'll moderate my approach. Satisfied?"
The other two exchanged a look. Gif said, "Exercise a little caution, some discretion."
"Don't go off half-cocked," Mike said.
Gif added, "That's all we're saying."
Drex placed his hand over his heart. "I'll be cautious, discreet, and fully cocked. Okay?"
Neither approved of that last bit, and they didn't look wholly convinced of his sincerity, but Mike said, "Okay. Next question?"
"Do you have a picture of him?"
"Only the one on his driver's license."
"Looks nothing like he did the last time he surfaced."
"Key West," Gif reminded them, although they didn't need reminding.
"You'd never know it's the same man," Mike said. "Which means I could be dead wrong about this fella."
"If he is," Gif said, "but you rush in hell-bent and create havoc in this guy's life, you'll land yourself in a world of hurt. Especially if Rudkowski were to get wind of it."
"Rudkowski can go fuck himself."
"Rumor is, he's tried, but can't quite figure out how to go about it."
Gif's quip got a rare snort of humor out of Mike and a reluctant grin from Drex. Gif was good at defusing a tense situation. Of average height and weight, with thinning brown hair, and not a single feature that was distinguishing, Gif's averageness was his camouflage. He could observe others unnoticed and unremembered, which made him a valuable asset to the team. He was also a reliable predictor of human behavior, as he'd just demonstrated.
Drex's impulse had been to rush in hell-bent and create havoc.
Needing a moment to collect his thoughts, he motioned toward the minibar. "Help yourselves." He stood up and began pacing in the limited space between the bed and the window.
Mike and Gif made their selections and popped the tops off soda cans. Mike complained that he needed a crowbar to get the lid off the jar of mixed nuts. Gif offered to give it a try. Mike scoffed at that and called him a weakling.
Drex tuned out their bickering and focused his thoughts on his quarry, a man he first knew as Weston Graham, although that could be just another of his many aliases. Having eluded the authorities for decades, he could have turned up enjoying a Frosty at the Wendy's across the freeway or burning incense in a monastery in the Himalayas, and neither would have surprised Drex.
He was a chameleon, exceptionally good at altering his appearance and adapting to his environment. Among the ones in which he'd lived comfortably and without arousing suspicion were a penthouse on Chicago's Gold Coast, a horse ranch outside of Santa Barbara, and a yacht moored in Key West. Other locales that he had oozed his way through—those that Drex knew of—weren't that ritzy. They hadn't had to be. All had been extremely profitable for him.
When his cohorts had resettled, Drex asked, "What put you onto the guy in South Carolina?"
"I run my trot lines continually, but what finally tipped me?" Mike said around a burp. "An online dating service. Figuring he vets his victims somehow, I troll those services periodically just to see if something clicks. Day before yesterday, I came across a profile that did. The wording of it jostled my memory. Felt like I'd read it before.
"Took me a while to find it, but there it was. Except for the physical description of himself, it was word for word, comma for comma, identical to this most recent one. Likes, dislikes, five-year goals, philosophy of life and love. All that bullcrap. But the kicker? It was posted six months before Pixie went missing."
Patricia Montgomery, known as Pixie to her friends, had vanished from her Tulsa mansion, never to be seen again.
"Coincidence, Mike," Drex said. "Acquaintances of Pixie's who were interviewed swore that she never would have used a dating service to meet men."
"The acquaintances of all the missing ladies have sworn that. They've also sworn their friend was too savvy to be taken in by a con man. But Pixie disappeared within days of selling her stocks and emptying her bank accounts of her oil fortune."
Gif said, "The only thing missing from her home was her PC. Her seducer left behind tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry and furs but took an outdated computer."
"So there wouldn't be evidence of an online flirtation," Mike said. The leather seat beneath him groaned as he leaned forward to take the near-empty jar of nuts from Gif. "You're frowning," he said to Drex.
"I want to be excited, but this is awfully thin."
"You're right. Thin as onionskin. So I went back to his victim after Pixie. At least the one we suspect to have been his victim."
"Marian Harris. Key West."
"Eight months before her disappearance, the same damn profile was posted. Different dating service, but one that also caters to 'mature' clients with 'discriminating tastes.'"
"Word for word?" Drex asked.
"Like a fingerprint."
"Bad joke," Gif said.
The man they sought had never left a fingerprint. Or if he had, no one had found it. Freakin' Ted Bundy.
Mike shook the last of the nuts straight from the jar into his mouth. "Pittsburgh didn't take him as long," he said as he noshed. "He solicited 'companionship' with 'a refined lady' only three months before Loretta Doan's disappearance, more than six years ago."
"Are all the services you scanned nationwide?"
"Yes. Relocation isn't a deterrent to him. I think the asshole likes the changes of scenery."
"When was this most recent profile put out there?"
"Couple of months back."
Drex grimaced. "He's looking for his next lady."
"That's what I deduced. So I gave it a test run. I replied, using buzzwords I figured would make me sound like a prime target. I described myself as a childless, fifty-something widow who's financially secure and independent. I enjoy fine cuisine, good wine, and foreign films. Most men find me attractive."
"Not me," Gif said.
"Me neither," Drex said.
Mike gave them the finger. "He must not have, either. He hasn't taken the bait."
Gif thoughtfully scratched his forehead. "Maybe you oversold yourself. You sounded too self-assured, sophisticated, and smart. He looks for women with a dash of naïveté. Vulnerability. You scared him off."
"Or," Drex said, "he picked up on the buzzwords, smelled a rat, figured that this dream lady was actually a fed on a fishing expedition."
"Maybe," Mike said. "But another, more likely possibility—the one I fear—is that he jumped the gun. Solicited too soon. He hasn't responded because he hasn't ditched his current victim yet."
It was a reasonable theory to which Drex gave credence because it caused his gut to clench. "Meaning that she's in mortal danger as we speak."
"Worse than that."
"What's worse than mortal danger?"
"Give," Drex said.
The heavy man sighed. "I repeat, Drex, I may be wrong."
"But you don't think so."
He raised his catcher's mitt–sized hands at his sides.
"Why do you think it's him?" Drex asked.
"Just promise me—"
"No promises. What makes you think this guy is our guy? My guy?"
"Drex, you can't go—"
Gif said, "Rudkowski will—"
"Tell me, goddamn it!" Drex said, shouting above their warnings.
After another pause, Mike mumbled, "He's married."
Drex hadn't seen that coming. "Married?"
"Married. Do you take? With this ring. I now pronounce you."
Gif confirmed it with a solemn nod.
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- Aug 11, 2020
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