OutfoxBy: Sandra Brown
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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?”