Agatha Elaine Malone had half a law degree from UGA, fourteen months training at the Illinois Police Academy, two years on the Chicago PD. She never talked about that. Her department ID described her as 5’5, 130 pounds, black hair, hazel eyes, which was more or less accurate. There was a rumor going around the department that she came from the kind of money that donated hospital wings and went to White House dinners, which she suspected had originated with Grady simply because he thought it would annoy her. He would’ve been surprised to find out how much she secretly enjoyed it. Aggie had been raised by her grandmother in an unpainted house with a dirt yard outside of Macon, Georgia, after her mother overdosed on heroin when she was six. Her grandmother had taught her that a lady could do without a lot of things—money, fine clothes, a husband—but class was not one of them. Aggie thought Gran would’ve been pleased that she had somehow developed enough class to make her coworkers think she came from money, even if her coworkers were just a bunch of redneck Gulf Coast deputies living in a town that had barely gotten used to cable TV.
When she interviewed for the job, Sheriff Bishop had asked, routinely, why she’d left law school for the police department. She had a pat answer prepared for that, all about how she preferred practice to theory, and how justice began on the streets but ended in the courtroom, and that answer had been good enough to get her the job in Chicago. Instead, she looked into the sheriff’s thoughtful dark eyes and told him the truth: her roommate, brutally assaulted after a football game by three of the star players; the prosecutor gently suggesting that she reconsider pressing charges given the difficulty of obtaining a conviction since she had been intoxicated at the time of the incident—he had actually said incident, as though it had been nothing more than an inconvenience; the victim, broken and afraid, dropping out of college and leaving town.
“I realized then I was in the wrong field,” she said. “I wanted to be one of the good guys.”
Bishop nodded. “I guess I already know why you left Chicago, then.”
She returned his steady gaze and replied, “Yes sir. It was the weather.”
He smiled and nodded and gave her the job, and it was good to know he understood the weather had had nothing to do with it at all.
Aggie Malone was twenty-eight, rock-steady on the job, and generally well liked around the department. She kept to herself and didn’t push in where she wasn’t welcome, which was a good thing, and she made points with the other guys by volunteering for beach patrol, a dull and isolated duty that, with the exception of Grady, was no one’s favorite. As only the second female deputy ever to be hired by the Murphy County Sheriff’s Department—the first being a forty-seven-year-old weight-lifting former prison guard named Maureen who could intimidate most of the men into silence with a single heavy-browed glance—she had had a few concerns about how she would fit in amongst all the good ol’ boys. In fact, she’d had some concerns about small-town life in general. But, Grady notwithstanding, she’d been surprised how easy it had been to slip into the routine of this slow, hot, lazy place, to let the sun soak up her ambition and the steam wash away her worries. It was exactly what she needed, and she never wanted to leave.
She parked in front of the house, turned on her high beams, and looked around. 210 Harbor Lane was one of the new McMansions that were starting to spring up along the formerly pristine beaches of Dogleg Island, an unincorporated protectorate of Murphy County, Florida. A short curved drive led from the street to the Mediterranean stuccoed façade of a three-story concrete building with curved balconies and ocean frontage. The three-car garage was on the front of the house, doors closed. The power-operated hurricane shutters were rolled up, but the windows were dark. An expensively maintained bougainvillea and two palm trees flanked the entrance, and a thick morning sea mist obscured the remainder of the yard. Aggie could hear the screech of the security alarm through her closed car windows. She opened the mike. “This is Malone, on site. Also, Sheriff, I’d like to file a sexual harassment complaint.”
Sheriff Jerome Bishop, a sixty-one-year-old war veteran, was the first black man ever to be elected sheriff in Murphy County, and he’d held that post for twenty-one years. He arrived at his desk at 6:00 a.m. every morning, seven days a week, including Christmas and Easter, with a reheated cruller and a tall paper cup of tar-colored coffee from the IGA grocery on the mainland. He went home to his wife and a hot meal at 6:00 p.m. every evening, and in between he monitored every word that went back and forth between his deputies on the radio, occasionally interjecting a pertinent comment in that deep baritone of his that was somewhere between James Earl Jones and everybody’s memory of their scariest high school principal. He rarely gave orders; he didn’t have to. His men—and women—knew their jobs and respected him enough to let him do his. He said now, “Sorry, you’ll have to take that up with HR.”
The Murphy County Sheriff’s Department consisted of four shifts of six deputies each, a 911 dispatcher for each shift, two jailers, an administrative assistant, and the sheriff himself. There was no human resources director, no public relations spokesperson, no in-service training specialist, and when they needed help investigating a crime—which was rarely on this Forgotten Coast—they got it from the state police. They had, however, recently received funding for a new microwave and vending machine in the break room.
Bishop went on, “Meantime, we’re on public airways, children, so let’s try to stay on task, shall we? I’ve got 210 down to a Walter and Leah Reichart, Reichart Dental Group. Summer people, right?”
“Yes sir. They’re in residence now, though. At least they were the last time they accidentally set off the security alarm, which was two days ago.”
The sheriff returned a grunt of acknowledgement, and the microphone picked up a shuffling of papers. “That must be what they called about. I have a message here. You were nice to them, weren’t you, Aggie?” It was a joke. If there was one thing anyone could say for sure about Aggie, it was that she was nice.
“Nice as can be,” she returned. “I can’t vouch for Roy, though. He caught the one after that.”
Briggs picked up the mike. “I’m always nice to rich folks, sir.”
Aggie got out of the car, not bothering to muffle the slamming of the door. She rested her hand on her utility belt and looked around, noting the absence of cars—which could well be parked inside the garage—and, more significantly, the absence of movement behind those darkened windows. There were two more houses on the beach side of this newly developed community, both of them empty, and nothing across the street but a tangled hummock of tupelos and loblolly pines. The sky was lightening to a pale gray now, just enough for Aggie to make out shapes and structures, but half an hour ago this short street would have been as dark as the underside of a tomb.
The whooping of the alarm, which was programmed to cease after five minutes, abruptly stopped, leaving her with the susurration of the ocean and the throbbing flight of the unit’s blues on the morning fog. She switched to her collar radio. “It’s quiet inside. They may have left.”
Grady broke in. “Backup’s on the way, baby. ETA one minute.”
She made a face, just as though there was someone there to see. “Be sure to bring your Batman suit. This case is clearly beyond the skills of an ordinary law enforcement officer.” She started up the walk.
Grady said, “Forty-five seconds. And say, Aggie, about that fantasy of yours. You know the one where I’m …”
“Buried in an ant hill up to your neck?”
Bishop said, “Focus, ladies and gentlemen.”
“It’s awfully quiet here,” Aggie said. “I’m moving in.”
Sheriff Bishop said, “Hold on, Aggie. You’re riding alone today. Wait for the boys.”
“You did not just say that.”
Bishop liked to pair up the deputies on beach patrol, not because the beat was dangerous or even particularly challenging, but because it was so damn boring. This time of year there were barely three hundred people living on the whole island, and it hardly seemed worth the assignment of a patrol car, but all those miles of beach did make a tempting target for drug dealers and sex offenders and Bishop didn’t like to take chances. So he put two men to a car on beach patrol, figuring that two of them had a better chance of staying alert, or at least awake, than one.
Aggie’s partner—her second since she’d been with the department—had left last week for a higher paying job, which was a fairly regular occurrence in Murphy County, and Aggie had discovered she liked taking the duty by herself. She did her rounds every two hours, chatted on the radio with the night dispatcher, checked security lights and rattled doorknobs on the shops in town. Around midnight she stopped by Pete’s Place for a burger and coffee, and on weeknights in the off season when they weren’t busy, Pete or his wife Lorraine would pour a cup and sit with her, talking about this or that. Pete Grady was six years older than his brother Ryan and, in Aggie’s opinion, a lot more interesting, and she really liked Lorraine. After her dinner break she’d resume her rounds, slow, quiet patrols down sleeping streets, listening to a little Ray Charles, or maybe a James Patterson book on CD. A big night would involve rousting a couple of teenagers from the backseat of a parked car at Beachside Park, or chasing away scavengers from pillaging the dumpsters outside a construction site. The quiet life was what she’d been looking for when she moved here, and the quiet life was what she found.
Bishop said, “Humor an old man. That alarm’s been going for five minutes and nobody shut it off. Could be we’ve got ourselves a real crime here.”
“I thought of that one myself, chief. In which case, don’t you think we ought to try to stop it? Being the police and all.” As she spoke she turned toward the garage and, taking out her MagLite, shone it inside the windows. There was a little red sports car and a blue SUV parked inside. She frowned and looked back toward the house. Still dark. Had the family taken off for an early fishing trip? Did they have more than two cars?
She spoke into the radio. “Sheriff, it looks like the Reicharts might still be in residence. Two vehicles in the garage, no signs of activity in the house. I think I’d better—”
“Check it out,” said Bishop tersely.
“Roger that.” She placed her hand on the butt of her sidearm and approached the front door just as Grady and Roy pulled into the drive, the flashing lights from their unit mixing with hers to create a dizzying cacophony of color across the lawn. They had, of course, been monitoring the radio communications and wasted no time joining her. One thing about Grady: he might be a cut-up in his down time, but when it came to business, he was the man you wanted by your side.
“I’ll go around back,” Grady said.
“Damn fool kids,” muttered Roy, who was breathing hard and limping a little just from the hurried walk up the driveway. “I’ll bet you anything they’re trying to carry a 52-inch flat screen down the beach right now. I got it.”
He moved around the east side of the house toward the beach while Grady went to the west. Aggie knocked on the front door. “Police!” she called loudly. “Hello!”
There was no response, but in a moment she heard Grady pounding on the glass door that opened onto the wrap-around deck. “Police!”
Aggie knocked again. The sea breeze was damp and salty, parting her dark bangs and creeping down the collar of her uniform shirt. She wished she hadn’t left her hat in the car; she could feel her hair going as flat as a skillet even as she stood there. She smoothed it back self-consciously, aware that Grady was just around the corner.
She tried the knob. To her surprise, it opened. She called, “Police! Mr. and Mrs. Reichart, is everything okay?”
Into her radio she said, “Hey, Grady, I’m going in. The front door is open.”
“Aggie, hold on. I’m coming around.”
She went in.
The house was built in a pretentious style, with a terrazzo-tiled three-story foyer and an oversized wrought iron chandelier hanging midway down. There was a staircase to the right, and a big open kitchen/family room overlooking the Gulf straight ahead. Aggie knew this from the last time she had answered a security alarm and Mrs. Reichart, a petite middle-aged blonde with the kind of perfectly coiffed bob that never frizzed, even in beach weather, had met her at the door with profuse apologies and invited her in. Her teenage son had accidentally set off the alarm while coming in late, and since it was a new system, neither one of them had been able to remember the code in time to shut it off. Her husband was driving in that night from Atlanta and he did know the code; nonetheless, he had managed to set off the alarm again when he arrived. In all, Aggie had made three trips to 210 Harbor Lane that week, not counting this one or the one Roy had made. Some police forces had a limit on how many false alarms they would answer before they started charging the homeowner for the call, but Murphy County did not, and Bishop had never pushed for one. The way he figured it, false alarms were a good training exercise for his officers and kept them on their toes. For Aggie, it was good to break up the monotony, and a way to get to know the people on her beat.
The light switch was on the wall to Aggie’s right and she flipped it on. The big iron chandelier prismed light across the tiled staircase and yellow stucco walls, catching the brilliant colors of an oversized oil painting of tropical birds in a way that almost brought it to life. Aggie started toward the front of the house, calling again, “Mrs. Reichart, it’s Deputy Malone from the sheriff’s department!”
She stopped, listening. The sound she heard was unidentifiable, but distinct, like a chain rattling against metal, or a small door being repeatedly slammed. It was probably just a loose shutter or a Venetian blind slapping back and forth against an open window. But she had not survived two years in Chicago by being careless, so she took out her gun, pointed it at the ceiling, and proceeded cautiously toward the front.
The pink sunrise and cerulean water that swept across the bank of windows lining the big room looked like a giant painting, and it was hard not to stop for a moment and stare. The morning glow was just enough for Aggie to make out the white leather sectional that curved around the center of the room, the glass-topped coffee table in the center of a white fuzzy rug, and, against the wall next to the windows, the source of the noise. A small black and white puppy was confined to a wire crate there, tugging on the metal door with the kind of frantic determination that would either destroy the cage or his teeth before he was done.
Aggie relaxed and reholstered her gun, her expression softening as she went over to the crate. “Hey there, little fellow. Are you missing your breakfast? Time for you to go out?” She knelt beside the crate and the puppy sat down and watched her alertly, as though waiting for her to unlock the door. He had a funny lightning-bolt blaze of white in the middle of his otherwise black forehead and the most amazing blue eyes she’d ever seen. Who knew dogs even had blue eyes?
Her radio crackled. “Report, Malone.” Sheriff Bishop sounded tense.
She pushed the button on her radio. “All quiet,” she replied. “No sign of the family. They left their puppy in a cage so they’re probably planning to be gone a couple of hours.”
“A cage? Who the hell does that?”
“Anybody who doesn’t want their five-thousand-dollar carpet peed on or the upholstery on their designer sofa shredded.” That was Grady. “Coming around front. Any signs of forced entry? Vandalism?”
“None.” She knew he was disappointed to hear it. They all secretly hoped for a little excitement to break the routine. “And the TV is just where they left it so you can tell Roy to stop looking. Looks like they just forgot to lock the front door. The puppy was making an awful lot of noise so that must’ve set off the alarm.”
“Could be,” said Bishop. “Have a look around anyway. Don’t forget to leave your card.”
“Roger,” said Aggie, and clicked off the radio.
She started to get up, and the puppy gave a single sharp short bark. It sounded like a command. She turned back to him, smiling a little.
“Where’s your mom and dad, hmm? Did they forget about you this morning?” She glanced around, and then hesitated. There was something splattered on the floor a few feet away, like the puddle made by a spilled drink. Part of it had seeped into the corner of the white rug, darkening the fibers. Her brows drew together and she half-turned, starting to stand. That’s when she saw a woman’s bare foot lying half on and half off the rug, and next to it a man’s. And she knew with instinct honed by two years in Chicago that the liquid that glistened on the floor was not a spilled drink.
The puppy wasn’t barking because he wanted out of his cage. He hadn’t set off the alarm. She understood then, in a moment of startling clarity and surrealistic calm, that she was very likely living out the last few moments of her life.
She thought, Damn it, damn it, damn it. Eighteen months and she’d forgotten everything, everything she’d ever known about staying alive, about being a law officer, about what bad people could do. Eighteen months of routine patrol, of sunrise over the ocean, of kids leaving condoms on the beach and thinking that was the thing she was defending against, that was the worst they could do, forgetting what was out there, forgetting who the real bad guys were. Damn it. Eighteen months of hearing fireworks, not gunshots; of seeing neighbors, not perps; eighteen months of feeling safe, for Christ’s sake, wasn’t that why she had come here? And in the process she had forgotten how to be a cop.
She was reaching for her gun when she felt the presence in the room, or perhaps she heard the harsh erratic breathing over her shoulder, and when she looked up she knew she’d never get her gun out in time, never even push the button on her radio in time. He was young and skinny-chested and wild-eyed, naked except for a pair of red swim trunks. Long hair was tangled across his face, wet with pinkish sweat, and there were dark smears on his arms and legs and chest. He held a pistol with both hands pointed straight at her. He made crazy gasping wheezing sounds through bared teeth and he was shaking so badly that the gun wavered erratically back and forth in his hands. That was when Aggie realized that his trunks weren’t red, after all, but stained with blood.
Behind her the puppy stood up and gave an anxious little whine, its claws clicking on the metal liner of its crate.
Aggie moved her hands slowly to the level of her chest, palms out. “Hey, it’s okay,” she said. The puppy whined again and pawed at the cage. She had the oddly rational but completely misplaced concern that a stray bullet might accidentally hit the puppy so she started to edge, very carefully, away from the crate. “I’m with the police and I’m here to help.” Grady, Briggs, where are you? For the love of God, where are you? Heart pounding, world slowing. Do your job. Do your job.
“Everything’s going to be okay.” She got one foot beneath her and eased slowly from her crouch to a standing position. “Don’t be afraid. We’re going to take care of this. Okay?”
For a moment some of the crazy terror went out of his eyes. The knotted muscles in his skinny shoulders might have relaxed a fraction and the rattling gasps of breath that blew strands of hair away from his face in gusts and starts actually seemed to ease. Cautiously, she lowered one hand and extended it toward him. “Give me the gun,” she said, and somehow she even managed a smile. Or part of one. “Let’s not have any accidents. I’m here to help. Let’s talk. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Suddenly the puppy barked, and she instinctively swiveled her gaze.
That was when he shot her in the head.
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