About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Lito Island, Texas
N 26° 14.895 W 097° 11.280
24 hours later
The police station was quiet.
Elaina McCord pulled into the empty lot and parked in the space closest to the entrance. She shoved open the car door and got out, sighing at the faint stirring of air. Not a breeze, exactly, but not too far off. For a moment, she stood beside the Taurus to get her bearings.
She scooped her hair off her neck and twisted it into some semblance of a bun. Her poly-blend Filene’s Basement pantsuit concealed her holster but didn’t breathe. She should have sprung for something silk, but when she’d purchased her career wardrobe, she’d been thinking D.C. or New York. In a million years she never would have guessed she’d end up in Brownsville, Texas—a satellite of a satellite office, a thousand miles from anywhere she wanted to be.
Today Lito Island Police Chief Matt Breck had called Brownsville to request federal assistance in solving a string of homicides. Most likely he was expecting a pair of veteran agents in crew cuts and dark suits.
Instead, he was getting a rookie in a Donna Karan knockoff.
Elaina smoothed her lapels and gathered her determination. She slammed the door shut, locked the car, and hiked up half a dozen wooden steps so a cardboard sign could tell her what she already knew.
The place was deserted.
BE BACK SOON. The black hands on the clock had been positioned for ten-thirty. Elaina glanced up at the sun blazing directly down on top of her. She cupped her hand and peered through the tinted glass door to the darkened offices beyond. The place looked to be shut down.
Who shuts down a police station?
What the hell planet was this?
Elaina huffed out a breath and turned around. Beyond the minuscule lot, a row of tall palm trees bordered Highway 106, otherwise known as Lito Highway because it was the only highway in town and ran the entire twenty-two-mile length of the island. The first two miles, Elaina had discovered, were crammed with motels, restaurants, and surf shops. The last twenty miles consisted of God only knew what. From the map, it looked as though the road disappeared into the Lito Island Wildlife Refuge just south of town. She turned her gaze that way now and saw grass and water and what looked like never-ending acres of swamp.
Or estuary. Whatever.
A weathered wooden deck surrounded the dormant police station, and Elaina followed it around to the back, taking care not to let her low black heels catch on the uneven slats. The white adobe station house reflected the sun like a mirror. It backed up to Laguna Madre, the bay that separated Lito from the mainland. Elaina averted her gaze from the glare as she made her way to the back of the building. A speck of movement on the water caught her eye.
A boat. Moving in her direction, too, which meant it was either heading toward the police dock or the cleverly named Lito Island Marina just next door.
The boat drew nearer. Some sort of official logo marked the side of it, and Elaina counted at least four passengers standing behind whoever was at the helm. Her stomach tightened as she thought about the fifth passenger, whom she knew would be lying on the floor.
The boat zipped past the police dock before making a wide turn and gliding up to the marina. The wake splashed up through the wooden slats, soaking Elaina’s shoes.
Water squished through her toes as she picked her way across the thick carpet of Saint Augustine grass separating the station house from the marina. SUVs and pickups crammed the gravel lot. She spotted two police units and a red Suburban with LIFD painted on the side.
Elaina ducked around the side of the corrugated metal building, passing a leathery man toting an empty crab trap, then a pair of teenagers carrying yellow bait buckets. Next to a humming Coke machine, a man stood smoking a cigarette and watching her. She passed a wooden fish sink and a balding, bearded guy who paused in the act of hacking off a fish head to stare at her. Ignoring all the curious gazes, Elaina focused on the end of the pier.
The boat’s captain—Chief Breck?—barked out an order, and a man in a khaki uniform hopped down from the vessel to tie the bowline to a cleat.
Two uniformed men bent down in unison and lifted something off the boat’s floor. Elaina watched, shocked, as they manhandled the long black bundle onto the pier, where they laid it out in the sun. Finally, the captain disembarked.
Elaina strode forward. “Chief Breck?”
His gaze shot up and turned instantly suspicious beneath the bill of his LIPD cap. “Yeah?”
She stopped before him and looked up at the guarded expression in his brown eyes.
“I got no comment at this time,” he stated.
“You’re with the Herald, right?” His gaze skimmed over her suit, pausing on her wet cuffs, then snapped back up to her face. “Or maybe you’re TV? Either way, I got no comment as of yet, so —”
“I’m with the FBI.” Elaina thrust out her hand. “Special Agent Elaina McCord.”
His eyebrows popped up, disappearing beneath the hat.
“You called Brownsville this morning?” she reminded him as his baffled gaze dropped to her hand. “Requested assistance?”
His brow furrowed now, and Elaina gave up on the handshake. He looked her over once again. She peered around him at the body bag laid out on the dock. A white-haired man in street clothes stood beside it. The ME?
“Why don’t you step on over there?” Breck gestured back toward the building. “Someone’ll be with you in a minute.”
Elaina gritted her teeth but complied with his request by stepping back a few paces. It wouldn’t be wise to piss off the police chief in her first homicide investigation. She crossed her arms and looked on as Breck turned his back on her and exchanged words with his officers.
Smoke wafted over to her. Elaina glanced at the Coke machine, where the man with the cigarette still stood, his shoulder propped casually against the door frame. Something about his steady, penetrating look gave her goose bumps.
She glanced away.
A flurry of feathers erupted as the man at the sink tossed some guts into the water and the seagulls scrambled. A giant brown pelican flapped over to snatch away the prize, then perched on the dock as he gobbled it down.
Elaina glanced around, taking mental notes. The teenagers had disappeared but the crabber still lurked nearby, his arms folded over his chest and his trap at his feet while his attention remained fixed on the body bag. Elaina memorized his face, then scanned the rest of the area for suspects. Some perps liked to hang around and observe the aftermath of what they’d done. Elaina counted nine spectators at the moment, including a shirtless, sun-baked twenty-something with blond dreadlocks. He had his arm draped over a young woman’s shoulders, and they watched the end of the pier with morbid fascination.
Elaina checked her watch. She cursed under her breath. Breck and his men stood huddled on the dock, shooting the nonexistent breeze. Elaina felt her temperature rising as the minutes ticked by and the sun glared down.
A large brown bird alighted at the end of the pier and wobbled over on spindly legs to check out the body bag, jabbing at the plastic with a sickle-shaped beak.
Elaina shot past the men and waved her arms. “Shoo! Shoo!” she yelled, and the bird took off.
She whirled around. “Where is the body-removal team?”
Breck frowned at her. “The who?”
“The body-removal team! She’s baking in there, along with whatever evidence we might recover.”
Breck’s hands went to his hips. “We’re waiting on our ambulance. They got hung up with some sorta accident down at the beach.”
Elaina took a deep breath. She felt dozens of eyes boring into her as she straightened her shoulders and tried to calm down.
“When will it be here?” she asked.
“When it gets here. Maynard.” Breck jerked his head toward one of the uniforms.
“Go take Miss McCord over to the station house to cool her jets.”
They left her waiting for more than four hours.
Elaina refused to acknowledge the snub. Instead, she retrieved her briefcase from her car, along with her cell phone. She spread her files out across the conference room table and worked diligently, as if she’d gotten up this morning with every intention of spending her Friday afternoon in some backwater police station. By five-thirty, though, her patience was gone. She was hungry and tired. And sticky, too, as the room had no air-conditioning— only a portable fan that circulated the same warm air, over and over. She was about to get up to search for a vending machine when the door popped open. Officer Maynard again.
“Miss McCord? The chief’ll see you now.”
Finally, an audience with His Highness. Elaina collected her manila file folders and shoved them into her briefcase.
“Right this way, ma’am.”
Maynard was shorter than she was, probably five-nine. But he had a trim build and rigid posture that reminded her of the Marines she’d crossed paths with during her twenty-two weeks at Quantico. He led her through the wood-paneled police station and past a sixtyish woman seated at a metal desk beside one of the offices. She was talking on the phone and writing on a pad, a stack of pink message slips piled at her elbow.
Maynard opened the door to the inner sanctum of Breck’s office, and Elaina stepped inside. The room smelled faintly of cigars, and the chief sat in a padded leather chair behind a faux wood desk. Arranged in a semicircle around the desk were plastic chairs occupied by people she’d seen earlier at the marina, with the exception of a bald man w...