After dinner, she walked out onto the screened-in porch and looked in the direction of the pond. The trees were black against the sky. Between the trunks, she could see the faint glimmer where a slice of moon was reflected in the water.

Jolie made the decision then. She went back to the bedroom and pulled on her swimsuit, nosed her feet into her flip-flops, grabbed a towel from the linen closet, and slapped down the path and through the gate to the pond’s edge. We’re going to fix this thing once and for all.

The moment she hit the path, the feeling started to build.

By the time she reached the bank, there was thunder in her ears. Her heart pounded.

Then the chasm started to open up beneath her feet.

Ignore it.

She stepped up to the edge of the pond. The world seemed to slither from view. Her legs shook. She dug her toes into the damp earth. Whether this would result in a dive or keep her chained to the ground, Jolie wasn’t sure. Just then, the phone rang inside the house.

It startled her so much, she almost sat down. Instead, she sprinted for the back door, thinking: I’ll be back later, and we’ll finish this.

The person on the phone was Lonnie Crenshaw, the Palm County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher.

“We have a report of shots fired at the Starliner Motel in Gardenia, and at least one gunshot victim. The victim is deceased. Can you take this?”


Jolie held on to the phone with one hand and stripped out of her swimsuit with the other. She walked to the closet and eyed blouses and slacks on a row of hangers. Grateful for the distraction. She would put the other stuff —the terrifying notion that this weird phobia was here to stay—out of her mind. “What’s the situation? We’re backup for the Gardenia PD?”

“Negative. They’re asking for one of ours to work the case.” There was a pause. “The deceased is Jim Akers.”

Chief Akers?”

“That’s right. Are you sure you want to take this?”

It took a moment for the magnitude of the situation to sink in. Adrenaline surged as she realized both the opportunity this presented and the possible pitfalls.

“You want Louis to take it?”

“No,” she said. “I’ll get there as soon as I can. Who’s there?”

“Gardenia PD. We have two units of our own on the way.”

“Tell them to stay out of my scene.”


Gardenia lay twenty-three miles inland from Meridian Beach, on a straight two-lane highway running through flatwood forests, scrubland, and cypress sloughs.

The Starliner Motel was a gray cinder block building with turquoise doors. The office jutted out toward the street. Ten units stretched off to the right. An oleander hedge ran alongside the motel, paralleling the railroad tracks. The oleander’s leaves looked yellow. Maybe it was from the glow of the sodium arc light above, or it could be due to the sulfurous pall cast by the Gardenia paper mill.

A little over a month ago, two people died here. Now there was another death.

Room nine was the second-to-last unit on the end. In addition to the sheriff’s and Gardenia PD units parked out front, Jolie spotted the chief’s navy Crown Vic parked nose-in to the room. A Gardenia PD officer stood just outside the open door to the room. His job was to keep unauthorized people out of the scene. He took it seriously —Horatius at the Bridge.

Jolie put on gloves and booties, took out her camera, and walked past the deputies, giving them a friendly nod. She tried not to be distracted by the smells coming from the room: gunpowder and the stench of meat left out too long.

It didn’t help any that the rotting meat was Jim Akers, a man she’d met on at least four occasions. The thought of him inside this sordid little motel at the edge of town depressed her to a depth she had not expected.

“Are you the responding officer?” Jolie asked the Gardenia cop.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Has anyone else been inside?”

“No, ma’am, I preserved the scene.”

She stepped through the doorway.

The chief lay faceup across the bed. His feet were on the floor, as if he had been sitting on the edge of the bed and then decided to lie back. He wore jeans, a polo shirt, running shoes.

He’d been shot above the right ear. His head was turned to the side, away from the point of entry. Blood seeped into the bedspread like an inkblot. The contents of his head—blood, a few flecks of bone, and brain matter —had been flung against the wall and the headboard like pudding.

I bet you don’t miss a thing.

Something he’d said to Jolie once. She didn’t recall the context, but he was right about that.

She tried not to miss a thing.

Jolie thought about everything she knew about him, which wasn’t much. He did flirt with her once at a picnic, in an offhand kind of way. It didn’t bother her because there didn’t seem to be anything behind it. She’d seen him with his wife and daughter—they looked like a happy family to her.

Jim Akers was an uncommonly handsome man. Now all that was gone.

Jolie surveyed the room, which reminded her of the places she and her dad had stayed in on their way back from New Mexico. Hundreds of miles a day, but the rooms were all alike. In small towns whose names she’d since forgotten, or places just off the freeway.

She raised the camera and took photos of the man on the bed.

The crime scene technicians came in. Jolie watched them for a while before going outside in the hot, damp air, inhaling the heavy scent of magnolias along with the residual incinerator stink of the paper mill. She could taste the copper of his blood, and every once in a while the spoiled-meat stink seemed to blow out of the room, bloated and huge. She looked at her notes under the porch light.

She wondered what the chief had been thinking, if he knew it was coming. Was there time to think? Did he close his eyes and pray? Or did he just give up and let it happen?

Jolie concentrated on the list of Akers’s possessions: wallet, change, comb, ID, pocket litter.

Something was missing.

Two things, actually. His cell phone, and his service weapon. Jolie doubted that a cop, even an administrative cop, would go anywhere without his service weapon.

And it was strange he had no cell phone. A police chief was on call, always. These days, how many people left their cell phones behind?

She stepped off the walkway and motioned the responding officer over. His nameplate said “Collins.” “Did you know the chief well?”

He seemed calm, but his eyes were like two blue holes in his head—shock. “Yes, ma’am. Pretty well. It’s a small department.”

“What kind of service weapon did he use?”

“An S&W model 66 .357 Magnum. The short barrel. Same as everybody in the PD.”

It occurred to her that there might be another explanation for the missing weapon and phone. It was a fleeting thought—way out of left field. She dismissed it immediately as outlandish.

But the feeling, small and uncomfortable, grew behind her solar plexus.

“What kind of holster?” she asked.

“A belt holster, ma’am. Standard issue.”

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