Edisto Stranger

Edisto Stranger

C. Hope Clark

May 2017 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-764-9

The Edisto Island Mysteries, Book 4



 
Our PriceUS$17.95
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A cold case heats up . . .

A dead man in Big Bay Creek, spring break, and a rogue FBI agent would be enough to drive Chief Callie Jean Morgan to drink . . . if she hadn't already quietly crawled inside a bottle of gin to drown her sorrows over a life ripped apart by too many losses.

When her investigation into the stranger’s death heats up an unsolved abduction case, Callie finds herself pitted against the town council, her son, the agent, and even the raucous college kids enjoying idyllic Edisto Beach.

Amidst it all, Callie must find a way to reconcile her grief and her precious taste for gin before anyone else is killed.

C. Hope Clark is the award-winning author of the Carolina Slade Mysteries and now the Edisto Island Mysteries. During her career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she met and married a federal agent—now a private investigator. She plots murder mysteries at their lakeside home in South Carolina when not visiting Edisto Beach. Visit Hope at chopeclark.com.

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

UNROLLING LAST month’s police report in her hand, with two dozen residents assembled behind her, Police Chief Callie Morgan spoke to the Edisto Beach Town Council. Not the best way for a girl to spend a Saturday evening.

But this was a command performance. Even without the council meeting, her son Jeb being home for spring break prohibited her usual six o’clock routine. She hadn’t had a drop of Bombay Sapphire in—what? Three days?

She read from her sheet—the council holding copies of their own—listing her tasks for the past month, her thoughts on the hurricane contingency plan, and the general performance of the force after receiving two additional officers the council so graciously approved for hire five months ago.

Thank God for the last one. Kept her from traffic duty. Kept her from people...

Finally, the end. Smile for the camera. She flashed a professional show of teeth at these five people who expected her to be beholden. Unfortunately, that included Councilman Brice LeGrand. Then she gave a nod to the mayor—who was nice to her face, neutral in public.

They’d made her the last item on the evening’s agenda. Not that she was on trial, but she made certain her report included the accomplishments of her department, details the council seemed to take more interest in of late.

The report was complete. Competent. But her heart wasn’t in it this evening. Her heart wasn’t in much of anything anymore. Muscle memory, work ethic, and an office manager named Marie kept Callie running the Edisto Beach PD, but heart? That was asking too much. She left passion in a rainy ditch on Pine Landing Road last September. Everyone had seen Mike Seabrook as invincible, never thought he could die, but he did... attempting to save her.

"Well,” Brice drawled at the front of the room, glancing at his casually dressed peers to his left, then his right. "She’s obviously no Seabrook, but we can check off the police department.”

The words slammed her like a mallet. A female gasp came from behind her in the audience. A councilwoman covered her mouth, and mumbles arose around the stuffy meeting room reeking of overcooked coffee, the confinement too tight for whispered words not to be heard.

Everyone watched Brice, the supporters and the opponents, both sides equally intimidated. "Y’all remember those jokes he’d tell? Mike could make these meetings more of a social. He’d bring donuts, Snickers bars, even sang his report that one time.” Brice managed a hound-dog look of sadness while giving no condolences to the police chief at attention before him.

Blood rushed in Callie’s ears. With an embarrassed board frozen before her, stunned citizens behind her, Callie stiffened in defense. "Excuse me?” She crushed the papers in her hand, but she wasn’t sure she had the strength for Brice’s challenge, or the focus to handle it properly. Not without getting fired on the spot... or being arrested for murder.

And God knows there’d been ample murder on the island.

She’d been exonerated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division in the shootout. But that fact paled in the shadow of Mike Seabrook’s death. The community had adored him. And he’d been the man she’d professed to love just twenty-four hours before he succumbed to a bullet and a knife on a muddy, desolate, rained-out road.

The room had gone silent. Silent! How many people still held her accountable?

Did they expect her to brawl, retaliate? Surely they sensed she couldn’t take a single breath without the memory.

Or was this a test as to what she could handle?

Then, Sophie Bianchi, wearing her more formal black yoga pants, leaped from her seat, jeweled hands on tiny hips, her black pixie hair shaking with rage and a hundred-dollar highlight job. "Well, I’ll sure as hell say something if none of you will. What’s wrong with you people? And Brice, you’re a gold-plated jackass and do not represent the voices of everyone here, regardless how big and bad you think you are! Don’t you remember the price this woman has paid for us?”

"How about the price we’ve paid?” he yelled. "Not all of us wanted her as chief!”

One councilman gave a soft "Yeah.” The councilwoman nodded, then seemed to catch herself when Sophie gave her a glare. Grumblings traveled the room.

Callie was mortified. Were they doing this now? Formally, they couldn’t launch into judgment of her without the issue being on the agenda, but the mention this month meant a formal discussion the next.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket. As Sophie continued dressing down the council despite Brice’s hard, heavy-lidded, and challenging gaze, Callie peered at Jeb’s caller ID. No message and no urgency. She refused it and turned her focus back to Sophie. Jeb had probably forgotten her town-council meeting obligation.

"This woman”—and the yoga mistress gripped Callie’s hand—"has saved this beach more times that you’ve peed in the ocean, you pompous dolt.”

Snickers rolled around the room. Brice’s cheeks reddened.

A text came through Callie’s phone. 911, Mom. Call me.

Callie spun her back to the council and strode to the back of the room, redialing his number. He picked up after one ring.

"What’s wrong? Where are you?” she whispered, a hand covering her other ear to hear better. Jeb had never cried wolf in his life. She glanced over at the government-issue wall clock. Quarter to eight.

"Chief Morgan,” Brice said into a microphone the small room really didn’t need.

She held up a stiff arm, finger pointed, indicating one moment.

"We’re kayaking up Bay Creek,” Jeb said, his voice quivering. "Oh my gosh, Mom. We were coming back and...” His words turned softer, his mouth away from the phone. "It’s all right. Mom will take care of it.”

"She’s on the damn phone, Brice,” Sophie scolded. "Probably an emergency. It’s what you hired her to do.”

Callie pressed her ear harder to hear better with the other. Was that Sprite crying? Instinctively, Callie glanced at Sprite’s mother. Sophie was still giving what-for to Brice.

"Jeb?” Callie spun back, head tucked down. "Is Sprite okay?”

Panic still laced his tone. "She’s fine. And I’m fine, but this floating body hung up in the grass isn’t.”

Callie stiffened, then held a hand in front of her mouth and whispered, "Give me one second.” She scooted back up the aisle and patted Sophie’s arm. "Gotta go. Police emergency.”

The board deserved the yoga mistress’s spitfire temper, and her ire would distract them from this new issue long enough for Callie to escape and reach her son.

Jeb’s voice rose. "What do I do, Mom?”

Knocking a chair in passing, Callie barged toward the door to the hallway, heart pounding. "I’m moving to where I can hear you. Are y’all alone?”

Night insects chirped and called in the phone’s background. "Yes, ma’am. We’re the only ones out here.”

That he could see.

As she passed the audience, some mumbled at her abrupt departure, but Jeb was the only person left in Callie’s life who could keep her going. Humidity smacked her as she burst outside, praying the phone signal held. She barely heard Brice calling after her.

The fire of dusk heightened the tension of the what-ifs playing in her head. It would soon be dark. She heard Jeb soothe Sprite again.

"Okay,” Callie said, reaching the parking lot streetlight. "Talk to me.” She jogged toward her car, fobbed open the cruiser, her black shoes making divots in the sand and gravel lot.

"We found him a half mile north of the public dock near the state park.”

She ran to her trunk, extracted a cap, flashlight, and windbreaker. The Zodiac rescue craft was ever ready for use, but she’d never called on it before. Firefighter Bobby Yeargin was the designated driver of the boat.

The thought of her son with a dead man chilled her to her core. "Are you sure he’s dead?” She cranked up the engine and left.

"Trust me, there’s no doubt about that.”

"Do you know him?”

"Jesus, Mom, I’m not rolling him over to tell!” She heard him catch his breath. "And I thought that would be tampering with evidence.”

Adrenaline coursed through her like a rain-swollen river. Was this a drowning, a slip in a boat, a drunk who fell in—too inebriated to find his way out? Jeb probably had the same thoughts, but what he might not think of was murder. And he wouldn’t wonder if the murderer watched in hiding.

God, make this all an accident.

"Okay, listen to me, son.” She forced a calm, steady tone to override his fear... and hers. "Does the scene appear safe?”

"What do you mean?”

Without being there, Callie had no idea if the body was fresh, old, just dumped.... Jeb and Sprite maybe having interrupted something at the hour of day when the grays of nightfall beckoned someone with equally dark plans. Jeb didn’t need to touch the corpse to determine any of this, either. "Without upsetting Sprite, Son, scan the area. Look nearby first. Then do a three-sixty. See anyone?” She swallowed. "While you’re doing that, I’m ordering the boat to come out there. Be right back.”

As she turned left on Lybrand, she placed the emergency call on the radio, which would alert the first responders for water rescue. Clipped words, directions, and an order to meet her at the dock.

Then she returned to her son. "Jeb? See anyone?”

"No, ma’am.”

She released half the breath she held. "Now, scour the distance, up and down the creek. Any boats? Anybody on the land watching? Any cars running? Look for lights.”

More seconds, with water sounds against the fiberglass kayak telling her he moved to follow her directions. A thump from his oar. "No, Mom. Nobody.”

Thank God. She tore past the Wyndham resort entrance and shot a small, desperate prayer up that the body wasn’t a local, in spite of the fact a tourist could be worse.

As she moved her cell to the other ear, her fingers gave a slight tremble she wished hadn’t surfaced. She fumbled the phone, but recovered it. "Damn it,” she whispered before she caught herself.

"Mom, you okay?”

"I’m fine,” she said, almost angry at him for asking the routine question he’d asked for every day of the four months leading up to his departure for college—and in every weekly phone call since. Synonymous with Have you been drinking?

Sure, she sometimes ended her days by smoothing the edges, but she hadn’t today. You’d think he could tell the difference.

"Okay,” she said, her cruiser making a small slide into the marina parking lot. "Stay there. Stay alert, and keep this call open. I don’t care who tries to call in, don’t hang up. I won’t be long.”

At the dock, she saw from a distance that someone already prepped the boat. Two divers, locals, readied another boat a few slips down. The emergency call also directed the coroner in Walterboro to send someone ASAP. By the book. Per the plan. Without fanfare or interruption of the council meeting in the administrative building she’d just left. It was April, spring break, and the last thing Edisto Beach needed was street talk about a death... or another of Brice’s lectures, hammering her inability to keep Edisto safe. Again.

A gust tossed her hair and made its way across the bay, the tide incoming. She donned her cap.

"Chief? You ready?” hollered Yeargin.

She waved her okay and headed toward the watercraft. Calm settled over her. "Jeb, we’re about to head your way. You’ll see our lights. I’m hanging up now. We’ll lose signal over the water.”

She remained police chief of Edisto Beach because of her ability to manage trauma without spilling it onto everyone else. She’d been hired originally because she "walked the walk” due to her Boston detective experience and "talked the local talk” having been born and raised in these parts. But Officer Seabrook and Officer Francis’s deaths last fall bit a huge chunk out of her self-assurance. She never wanted to pull a firearm again after she’d shot the killer that night, with relish and way more bullets than needed.

But this wasn’t about the cop in her. It was about the mother. She’d find a way to do whatever needed to be done. Jeb had no idea of the ramifications of finding a body... particularly if he’d run across a body not meant to be found.


 

 

Chapter 2

JEB HAD FOUND the body hung up in the weedy marsh a few dozen yards north of the Edisto Interpretive Center in the state park, on the Colleton side of a water that changed width, depth, and character with each tide. Charleston County owned the other side, a magical line in the water dividing the counties. Jeb and Sprite still huddled in their kayaks against the marsh grass of the Colleton side, well out of the way of the dive operation.

As the two divers reached the boat’s side, Callie braced herself against the Zodiac’s rocking. She was still frustrated at how long it took the deputy coroner to arrive. He hadn’t even apologized.

As divers laid the floater in the boat, a credential case slid out, smacking onto the deck like a dead fish. Yeargin and the coroner were focused more on the body, so, pushing back a dull headache, Callie shined her flashlight and one-handedly pried the wet leather open to identification and a badge. Well, hell.

She shifted to block Yeargin’s view. The body’s driver’s license hid behind the creds, and with her hand covering the gold shield, she studied the dead man. Even bloated, the face fit the photographs close enough. "Bag it and put it away,” she told the deputy coroner, who quickly slid the ID into an evidence bag, then into his case. Then at the coroner’s disapproving grunt, Callie shifted her light, reaching farther into the victim’s soggy pockets.

She restrained a small moan of her own, feeling somewhat relieved—and not the least bit guilty—at the corpse being a stranger. A dead federal agent meant federal company within hours. She just happened to be the poor uniform in charge of the tiny beachfront town where this guy chose to die. Her responsibility for one night, tops.

Soft water lapped against the inflated black boat, the briny odor of the disturbed pluff mud dominating that of a death too recent to have begun to rot. Chilly saltwater drained from the body to form puddles in the skid-proof bottom of the twenty-five-foot worn-looking Zodiac. The gray-haired dead man wasn’t in much better shape—ocean denizens had commenced feeding on small sections of his eyelids, hands, ears. The sea recycled the dead pretty friggin’ fast, but he hadn’t been in long, she guessed, having fished a few out of the Charles and Merrimack Rivers back in Boston.

The young, lanky deputy coroner, Richard something, did a cursory study, and when his gloved hand touched the skull, he gave a quick glance at Callie. She touched lightly where he had. Something, or someone, had knocked the dead man hard on the right side of his head. As if rearing a bat and hitting for a homer.

She sat back on her haunches and scoured the close vicinity, then took her scan farther out. One upscale home shone north of their location before a bend where a few others would be. Only the wealthy could afford to front meandering Big Bay, where the smallest parcels of land ran upward of half a mil. Everywhere else she looked remained silent and pitch black.

This was a body dump. Too many obstacles for this body to have floated far. The deed happened here, or barely a stone’s throw up the creek. A stone’s throw from where Jeb had been.

Kayaks nestled amidst the grass, Jeb reached across to hold his girl’s hand while his police chief mother did her thing.

In round halos of halogen lights, a couple of johnboats floated to the side of Callie’s vessel, the emergency first responders numbering seven plus the coroner. Though loyal to the tiny South Carolina beach community, these scanning eyes belonged to people who didn’t need to know much more than that they’d found a floater. News of a dead federal agent would explode like a virus once they made shore, faster than Callie could make the proper family notification... or reach the authority connected to that badge.

Just what everyone needed at the beginning of the season.

She couldn’t get Brice’s evening performance out of her head. The man would be even more driven to ruin her reputation since she walked out of his meeting without clearing it with him or playing Father-May-I. He would second-guess each of her moves—like he didn’t already—and take the opportunity to misinterpret facts and spin scandal. Which made one thing certain... she’d keep the details of the night hidden from the councilman as long as possible.

Everyone’s flashlights bounced off reeds and sawgrass, searching for the unusual, but the water barely moved now that the body had been extracted and secured in the boat.

"What you thinking, Chief?” asked the Edisto firefighter at the helm. Yeargin wasn’t a native, but he had fifteen years under his belt. He bore responsibility for maintenance of the rescue boat because he fished these waters every chance he got. Her youngest officer, Thomas Gage, had been begging for Yeargin’s responder slot for a year.

"We got ID, but not much else,” she lied, not wanting to mention the badge, then reached a hand to the deck, a mild wave threatening to teeter her off balance. The night breeze flapped her windbreaker, and she fastened the bottom two snaps and tugged down the brim of her cap covering short brunette hair she trimmed herself. In spite of the recent warm spring days, she’d worn her more formal long-sleeved uniform for the town-council meeting. A shiver made her glad for the warmer apparel. Inside, a nervous freeway of anxiety zipped and zinged, seeking those old instincts that once served her so well on the street.

Unfortunately, this poor dead chump served as the first test of her ability to function since losing Seabrook.

The deputy coroner returned to his seat on the boat. There were three or four people named Richard in the coroner’s office, and she hadn’t learned in her ten-month tenure who was who yet. This Richard had observed the body in the water, helped remove it, and taken pictures. He seemed to consider his work done.

Callie turned back to the body, speaking over her shoulder. "Guess you need to get him back to the morgue before you know if this head wound was the cause of death.”

"You’re good, Chief.”

Sarcastic bastard. He’d said less than a dozen words since stepping onto the boat. Quiet. Borderline rude. Resentment against her, or was she overthinking this? He could simply be pissed he’d had to leave a good warm dinner on the table.

"Recognize the guy, Callie?” Yeargin asked.

Callie shook her head. "I take it you don’t either.”

"Who is it?” shouted one of the other responders in another boat.

"Don’t know yet,” Yeargin hollered, then turned back to her. "Hank’s still in the water waiting for orders, Chief.”

She kept feeling the pockets for clues.

"Wish you wouldn’t,” Richard-somebody said. "I should be the first line in the custody of evidence, and I don’t like anything touched until we get back.”

She ignored him. In her flashlight beam she counted over a hundred dollars in the deceased’s money clip. A cloth handkerchief but no initials... old school without flare. Keys to a Nissan and most likely a residence. She felt around his waistband to his back.

Here we go. A small-of-the-back holster, clipped to his belt... empty.

Yeah, Richard-whoever. This is why she should search the body here.

"Tell them we’re missing a handgun,” she told Yeargin, who again shouted to the two divers.

Finally, she dared shine the light deeper into cloudy eyes that used to be brown, widened with the shock of the unexpected. "Why were you on my beach?” she muttered. "Age, say late fifties. New khakis, new polo, mild sunburn already... not local. A vacationer but not an outdoorsy sort.” She studied his hands. "Not blue collar. No ring. And most of all, no boat.” Still crouched, she set down a knee. "How did you get out here?”

Unless this unarmed FBI agent fell off the closest dock and floated until he got hung up, a more sinister motive made the most sense. But Richard-something could make that determination.

The diver shouted. "Not finding anything, Chief, but depending on how many tides happened while he floated, that gun could be under six inches of mud by now. We can look again in the daylight, if you like.”

"We can head home,” she yelled back, already calculating that the man had been in the water for one tide cycle, max. The death happened that day. "I think we’ve found all we’re going to find in the dark.”

She nodded to the deputy coroner. "Help me zip him up, if you don’t—”

In looking up at him, her gaze landed on her son and his date still huddled with a flashlight.

"Jeb? You and Sprite paddle over here.”

Still shell-shocked, Sprite lifted her oar and plopped it into the water, Jeb protectively letting her lead. Her long raven curls piled on her head, the eighteen-year-old high school senior reached the marine response boat and gripped a rope.

With her oar resting lengthwise atop her craft, she made room for Jeb, who securely wedged her kayak against the boat. Their small waves kissed the rubber sides of the Zodiac.

The chivalry wasn’t lost on his mother, a reminder of Jeb’s father. Though proud of her blond, way-taller-than-her son, she recognized the fear, too. Keeping in mind the girl he liked to impress, Callie searched for the right words. The kids needed her strength, though she hated bodies worse than anyone present, regardless of her experience... because of her experience.

She and the coroner finished zipping the bag, then she leaned on the side of the Zodiac, her gloved hand slipping once on the edge, which was wet from when they lifted the body into the boat. "I’m sure this scared the bejeezus out of the two of you, and I’m proud of the way you handled it. However, until we identify this man, we can’t afford for you, me, or any of these men to chat it up around the beach. Understood?”

"Yes, ma’am,” Sprite said demurely, sweeping a curl blown loose behind her ear. Jeb nodded.

"And I hate to say this, but Sprite, you cannot tell your mother. Not yet. We can’t have people freaking, going nuts calling, thinking this guy belongs to them. It shouldn’t take long to find his name, and I should be the one to tell the family, not some gossip on the street. You hear? Let me explain it to Sophie, so she doesn’t get mad at you.”

"She’s already tried to call me,” Sprite said, holding up her phone.

"Text her you’re on your way in, but if she presses for answers, tell her to call me.” Callie’d have to tell Sophie something or she’d dig hard at these guys upon their return and spread the news as colorfully as she addressed the town council. Everyone loved Sophie, but the problem was she loved everyone back, which meant lots of loose conversation.

Callie shouted at the closest johnboat. "Hank? Can your boat tow the kids back?”

"Sure thing, Chief.”

Sprite gave a nervous scoff. "Can’t I just ride in the big boat? Hitting your oar on a dead body, that’s just...”

Jeb pushed off, emboldened. "There are no more bodies. Come on. We’ll just hook up behind them and coast.”

Sprite hesitated, then paddled effortlessly like the young could, and moved out of the boat’s path, catching up with Hank. He anchored them, then motored slow while the others took off to the marina.

"Get us home, too,” Callie said, removing the gloves and taking her seat, acting as if they found waterlogged stiffs every week. But her mind churned.

"Been a while since I’ve seen one of those,” Yeargin said, tilting his chin down at the black bag.

"Never long enough,” she said.

"Got that right.”

He focused on his steering, moving around Hank and the kids. Callie waved as she passed, then sat back and pretended to study the moonlit landscape since the deputy coroner still remained in his own world.

What the hell was a dead FBI agent doing in her neck of the woods? In an area of the Lowcountry that nobody accidentally got lost in.

Edisto Beach existed at the end of the long highway known as 174, dead ending in the Atlantic. You either came here on purpose or you didn’t come. The wind filled her jacket, and she hunkered down in her chair with her thoughts for the last half mile to the dock.

That first name on the creds was one not easily forgotten. Pinkerton. Like the detective agency, which was quirky. Last name Rhoades. She’d worked with many FBI agents in Boston. So had her deceased husband, a deputy US marshal. God, four years seemed so long ago.

"You’re awful quiet,” Yeargin yelled over the wind.

"Bodies tend to do that to me,” she replied, knowing he’d hush at her response. Every administrative and government worker understood full well she had the most bodyexperience of anyone on Edisto Beach, and had no desire to share the details.

They began to pass moored boats at private docks. Back at the marina, they’d load the poor guy in an ambulance and she’d escort him to Walterboro, calling the Charleston FBI office en route. She began to feel the first investigative itch she’d had since... well, in a while.

The agent wasn’t dressed to be on the water, but had ventured armed. However, most law enforcement wore a piece, on duty or off.

Nobody had missed him yet. Unless nobody knew he was out here.

She instinctively reached for her phone. Seabrook would.... She withdrew her hand, trying to nonchalantly set an elbow on the arm of the seat, hoping Yeargin couldn’t possibly have read her mental misstep.

She hadn’t yet shed the reaction to call Seabrook’s work cell, ask his thoughts, get him to ride along. And each time she almost dialed, she felt the unhealed hole in her heart crack and ooze.

He remained on her speed dial, and she caught herself rubbing her thumb over the number when she missed him. On the worst of evenings, she sat alone on the front porch of Chelsea Morning, her beach house, and called his voice mail.

Her office never questioned why Edisto still paid for that phone to remain active.

Along with her office manager, a chunk of the sympathetic community still handled Callie with kid gloves, and she let them. Her privacy was precious, plus, they couldn’t see her sweat. They had to believe that the cop they hired could hold it together.

She could label the floater as a blessing, if one were prone to be so morbid. A reason to focus on something other than the huge hole in her life. An event to drag her back to law enforcement that consisted of more than the occasional rental break-in, or open–alcohol container tickets.

Or she could curse this incident as a chance for Brice to remove her for good.

She wasn’t sure which was best.

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