Alex Troutt Thriller Series #1
AT Bay Excerpt
We banked right in our airboat, and the brisk wind slapped the chilled water back in my face. For the second time today, I felt my lungs clear as nature infused me with renewed vigor. If we hadn’t been on our way to a murder crime scene, I would have asked for the ride to continue for another thirty minutes.
Turning to look over my shoulder, I saw a legion of airboats dip and dodge through the marshes splintering off Essex Bay. I only knew this because Nick showed me a map on his phone as we waited on the muddy shoreline, an unsightly mosh pit of mud and weeds. FBI, MSP, local police, and a few other agencies were part of the crew headed for Choate Island.
The initial team had apparently already been working the crime scene. We were part of the second wave. Given our sheer numbers and the urgency in the way people moved, it was as if we were poised to storm the beaches of Normandy.
Another random historical fact that had zipped through my mind. But I still had no visual images of even my own home.
“We’re hitting shore just ahead, around the bend.” Wearing a yellow hoodie, the boat’s driver pointed as he shouted above the roar of the engine. Once our feet hit the ground, it wasn’t very solid. It was a marsh after all. Nick’s first step sunk about a foot, and when he pulled up, his socked foot popped out of his leather shoe. I could see his lips fire off a few cuss words, but no one could hear regular chatter over the clapping, windmill-sized propeller.
Once Nick was on shore wearing both shoes and about ten extra pounds of caked-on mud, we followed the group to the southwestern side of the island.
“What’s this island used for?” I whispered to Nick.
“Just random fishing, I think. Never been out here. Wish I wasn’t here right now.”
We trudged through waist-high weeds and sections of mud that looked more like quicksand. I heard someone call out, “Be on the lookout for snakes.” The thought of a snake slithering up my pants leg didn’t give me a warm-and-fuzzy, but I literally saw Nick quiver when he heard the news. Maybe nature wasn’t his thing.
Led by a guy with a machete, we slowly made our way through a thicket of brush and emerged just next to the temporary hub for the crime scene investigators.
“People, are you listening?” Some guy with an FBI jacket, mirrored sunglasses, and a mustache took charge, whether that was his role or not. He darted his head left and right, then finally put two fingers in his mouth. His whistle silenced the shore. “People, can I have your attention?”
Nick nudged me and made sure I saw him roll his eyes, as if I should join him. Was I supposed to know this guy who appeared to belong on a 1980s porn movie set?
“People, we have a lot of agencies with money in this game. But we must remember this is an active crime scene. We cannot and will not mess with the integrity of my crime scene.”
“His crime scene. Eat me,” Nick said in my ear.
“Do I have your full agreement on this matter?” The man used his hands as he spoke, as if he were preaching to the choir. In some respects, he was.
“If you want to jump on Facebook and chat with your friends or share a picture on Instagram, you can get a boat ride back to the mainland. Am I clear on this?”
Mumbles and a few “yes sirs” came from around me.
There must have been forty people encircling the Grand Poobah. He clapped his hands, and everyone went back to work.
Nick and I waited for the crowd to clear a bit, then made a beeline toward the lead douche bag.
Jerry had texted Nick on the way over with two implicit demands. He wanted to know what the hell type of crime had created such a stir among the law enforcement community, and he wanted to make sure Nick kept me safe and away from anyone who hadn’t received the memo that I was on LOA—even if I was at a murder crime scene.
As both of us stood next to the mustached man who was holding a one-way discussion with three guys in scuba gear, Nick was grimacing and lifting his legs, staring at the mud that was quickly hardening into mud bricks.
“I’m sure you can clean them off. It might just take a chisel and a crowbar.”
“I’ve had these shoes for ten years. They match my suits and suspenders, and they fit my feet like a glove.”
“Then why aren’t you wearing them on your hands?” I gave Nick a playful wink just as Mustache Man turned on his heels. He removed his mirrored glasses and eyed me, then let out a quick chuckle.
“Alex. It’s been a while.”
I slowly turned my torso to Nick and made my eyes go wide. Had he forgotten to fill me in on a very important fact? The only facts I was certain of were that I didn’t know this guy and I didn’t feel like sharing my life story, or what I knew of it.
“Yep,” I said, purposely turning my head, allowing Nick to take the lead.
“Okay, be that way,” he muttered.
Just as I opened my mouth, Nick chimed in.
“How’s it going, Randy?”
“Eh. Different day, different psychopath.”
“How can I help with the investigation?”
“Not clear yet. I’ll let you and your old-new partner here take a look at what we’re dealing with, then we can divide and conquer. Capisce?”
Randy led us over to a team in amphibious gear by the muddy shoreline, where shards of cracked ice were floating in the shallow water. “We’ve yet to bring the body on shore since we’re still trying to capture everything on film first. Of course, with a body in salt water, we’re not going to find much, if any, trace evidence. And you can blow transient evidence out your ass. There’s nothing there.”
I scrunched my eyes and leaned to my right to try to get a peek at the dead body. There were at least two guys in scuba gear swimming near the surface of calm water in an area about fifteen feet off the shore, taking pictures.
“Mike here will fit you with wetsuits.”
Randy turned and walked away as Nick raised his hand to me in protest.
“You can’t do this, Alex.”
“Why not? I’m an FBI agent just like you. I’m sure I can help in the investigation.”
I moved toward Mike, who found a wetsuit that fit me. He pointed at a portable tent where I could change.
“Alex, you’ve got to be kidding me. Jerry will have my ass for dinner if you go into that water.”
“Geez, Nick, relax. It’s not like I’m swimming the English Channel. I’m just getting a better view of the crime scene. Jerry said he wanted all the information, right? I’m only here to help.”
“Dammit.” He removed his fedora and scratched the back of his head. “This isn’t my natural environment. I think I’ll watch here from the shore. But if Jerry asks, I vehemently protested you going in. Hell, he might tell me I need to put you in handcuffs.”
“But what would Antonio say?” I disappeared into the tent before he could respond. I squeezed and squished my body into the wetsuit and emerged in no time.
I was given a snorkel, mask, and fins. “It’s not very deep, but you’ll sink into the mud unless you use the fins to stay afloat,” Mike, the amphibious team leader, told me.
Part of me worried about the physical exertion warning I’d been given. But what was the worst thing that could happen? My head would hurt a little more? Any doctor would tell me to take two ibuprofen and get some sleep, which I hoped to do in my own unfamiliar bed this evening.
For now, though, I had to admit a few butterflies were fluttering inside. Something about the scene excited me—maybe not traipsing through mud and murky water, but the idea of studying a crime scene and then investigating all the logical questions: What was the motivation of the killer? When did it happen? And how the hell could we piece together the jigsaw puzzle to apprehend the person who committed the brutal crime?
“I’m going to lift you off the shore and set you in the water. Then start flapping your fins and you’ll be fine,” Mike said. He was about a foot from my face. He had a pleasant look about him.
Mike turned away for a second and used a rope to pull in one of the other divers from the water. With my finned feet planted in one spot, I leaned back to Nick, pulling down my mask.
“Having second thoughts?” he asked.
“Dude, you forgot to give me the scoop on that douche bag Randy.”
“It didn’t occur to me until he said something. And then it really hit me.”
I could feel a knot forming in my gut. “You might want to tell me now since I’m not in a good position to come over there and kick your ass.”
“You may not remember much, or even notice the transformation, but slowly the needle on your personality is edging back to its normal state.”
I tried to arch my eyebrow, but the mask had already stretched my forehead. “Are you going to answer me?”
He looked around, making sure no one was listening. “It isn’t a secret that for a while Randy had the hots for you.”
I studied his face, wondering if he was joking. Hoping he was joking. “You’re joking, right?”
A strange look washed over his face, as if he felt sorry for me. “I wish I was.”
“That’s so gross.” I looked into the sky, where gray clouds had now blanketed the sun, and wondered how the old me had responded to any possible overtures. “Did I happen to share with you what my reaction was? Did I reciprocate any of his advances?”
“Hell no. At least I don’t think so.” He brought his hand to his chin.
“Huh? Why are you waffling?”
“I’m not waffling. You just—”
“Uh, well, during the last few months before your crash, you became more distant.”
“I realize that in many respects you and Jerry have basically called me a bitch.”
“It’s okay. I’m a big girl. I’m just trying to figure out this world, one cheesy douche bag at a time.”
We traded smiles.
“Okay, Alex, you ready for a swim?”
“Yep,” I said to Mike the amphibian.
He picked me up in his arms, and I instantly understood what it felt like to be a fish thrown back into the sea.
“Did Randy tell you this was a disturbing scene?” Mike asked.
“I’ve been in the FBI for…” Damn, another memory gap. “…a long time.” That should help him understand that I didn’t need any hand-holding. Of course, at that moment, I recognized the irony of my thoughts, realizing he was holding me like a little baby.
He released me gently into the water, and I gave him a thumbs-up, then dipped my head below the surface where two divers swirled beneath me like sharks. I gave them the thumbs-up too, and I kicked my fins and veered to the right to obtain a better view of the corpse.
I glided about ten feet, ensuring that my breathing remained even. Thus far, my body had responded like a pro, which gave me more confidence. Perhaps I’d been in decent shape before the crash. I didn’t feel too much flab tugging against the water.
Turning myself around, one of the divers moved out of my view, and I got my first glimpse of the floating corpse. Nothing in my life—as I knew it—had prepared me for this sight. I gasped, which forced water down my air passages, and I started to flail and gag. Kicking my fins, I lunged above the surface and ripped off my snorkel mask, gulping in large quantities of air as I continued choking and spitting up water.
“Alex!” I heard from the shore. I think it was Nick.
I kicked harder to ensure I stayed above water and pinched my nose, releasing a few more gasps and then a big belch.
“Come back to the shore, Alex.” Yep, that was Nick, ever my guardian angel.
“I’m…” I tried speaking but my words sounded like a raspy wheeze. “I’m…fine. No big…deal.”
“Jerry will kill me if you die from drowning at the crime scene of a drowning.”
I tried to bring my body into a calmer state, then I realized I could see my breath in the air. The brisk wind bit against my exposed face.
“Are you going to ignore me?”
I’d yet to give anything more than a passing glance at the shore. That would show need, or even worse, desperate need. That wasn’t me.
I slipped my mask back on and torqued my body into a horizontal position. I could hear myself breathe. Steady and even. I readjusted the mask—a small amount of water had seeped in from the side—and found my vantage point. I attempted to filter out any emotion and look at the body logically.
It was a man, thick hair, stubble on his face in semi-fetal position. But what the hell was wrapped around his body? It was cone-shaped. His arms appeared to be forced around him, as if in a straitjacket. I guessed the cone was made from duct tape. A lot of duct tape. The wall of gray tape was hard and full of something. I moved in closer and looked straight down. Inside the cone were two cinderblocks.
Was that string? Must be. I found two lines, one attached to each block, tied to something small and hollow at the other end. I wanted to dive down and inspect it, but I knew it would create a shitstorm back on shore. Plus I wasn’t completely confident my body wouldn’t wig out once I submerged to eight or ten feet below the surface.
The dead man wore a suit, minus the jacket. I could see a watch on his wrist. Looked high-end. But who knew for sure? Could be a cheap knockoff. His skin was wrinkled, and the hue ranged from pink to red.
My eyes gravitated back to the cone, and I could see a large blotch of burgundy on his cream-colored dress shirt. Maybe he didn’t drown. Maybe he’d been shot and then the body submerged until it decomposed so badly most of his appendages would fall off.
How did I know that?
His neck seemed extra thick, which swayed the cause-of-death theory back to drowning. Come to think of it, actually, he was still hovering near the bottom, just at the tips of the seaweed. The gases were still trapped in his body, which made me question the idea of a gunshot wound to the chest. Maybe it was a wound of some kind, but not deep enough to tear all the way through the skin tissue.
Flapping my arms against the water, I moved backward while keeping my vision on the body. Looking down his leg, I saw a rope tied around his ankle. The rope disappeared in the seaweed, probably tied to a heavy object of some kind, like another cinderblock. I glanced again at the cone of duct tape and wondered who had thought of this contraption and what was the motivation? Had it been premeditated or a quick reaction to an emotional killing? There were a hundred possible scenarios. Hell, probably closer to a million. I recalled somewhere in my past being taught that no two killings were the exact same, even if they were committed by the same person, for the same reasons. Too many other variables to consider.
I took another mental snapshot, then flipped around and floated toward the shore, where Mike the amphibian picked me up chest first. His hand accidentally brushed my nipple, which might have done something for me had my entire body not been frozen.
“Sorry,” he said in my ear as I righted myself on the shore.
Nick covered me in a blanket. “You’re going to get pneumonia, and then Jerry is going to make sure I get pneumonia.”
I could hear my own teeth rattling, and I clamped my jaw down before anyone could see.
I told Nick I wanted to change back into my dry clothes, and I shuffled into the tent, sniffling and shivering. I pulled the wetsuit down to my ankles, then paused briefly, my mind still digesting the vivid images from the dead man with a duct-tape cone wrapped around his body.
Suddenly, the tent door unzipped. My feet shifted, but I tripped on my wetsuit and tumbled to the ground. As the fabric flapped open, I spotted my clothes and threw them on top of my most vulnerable parts. I shot my eyes upward only to see Randy removing his glasses.
“Someone told me you had an incident in the water. Are you okay?” he asked, his shoulders so wide I could barely see the outline of light. I realized I still felt a bit of air…down there, and I shifted my hand six inches lower. Instantly, I was mortified from embarrassment, sending a wave of heat up my spine.
“I’m fine,” I said in short order, noticing his eyes never left mine. That was good.
Then, just as quickly, he backed out of the tent and zipped it back up.
I put on my clothes, then stepped back outside while roping my wet hair into its standard ponytail, thinking more about my unexpected visitor. I found Nick at a makeshift table sifting through images on a tablet. I didn’t ask what he was doing.
“Did you tell Señor Douche Bag that I had trouble in the water and needed his assistance?”
“Hell no. I wouldn’t do that to you, even on your bitchiest day.”
“Did you see him enter my tent when I was changing?”
Nick’s eyes bugged out. “He did what?”
Saying it out loud made me wonder what the hell I’d been thinking when Randy had walked in uninvited. For whatever reason, I just froze, fumbling with my words, failing to admonish him. That didn’t seem like the Alex Giordano buried somewhere deep inside.
“Where is that prick?” I asked, turning, looking for the biggest dick I could find. Actually, the biggest asshole. He probably had the smallest dick.
I scanned the shoreline and brush, the area as active as a kicked-over fire ant mound. Did Boston have fire ants? I spotted Randy, nodding his head while speaking with two guys from the CSI team. I marched in that direction as I heard Nick say from behind me, “Oh crap. Alex, please don’t punch him right here at a crime scene. Let’s not dip to his level, okay?”
Nick was right behind me, but I couldn’t have cared less. Just as I approached the three men, I overheard the older CSI agent say, “Wedding rings, Randy. They’re all catalogued digitally. We just need to bring them above surface. No hope in getting any trace or transient evidence off them, although we’ll go through the routine. Who knows? We could get lucky.”
Taking my last step, I tripped over a stump, tumbling forward. I would have hit the ground had I not face-planted into Randy’s ass. Being graceful and all, I pawed at whatever I could find—his belt loop and back pocket—and pulled myself upright. I stood at attention, then noticed a huge lock of hair dangling in front of my eyes. I curled it around my ear and returned to my authoritative position with my hands clasped behind me.
“Alex, you’re not still feeling the ill effects of your freak-out in the water?”
“What? No, I am not,” I said with my chin upward. I eyed the two CSI agents, realizing now may not be the best time to chide the douche bag. But I wasn’t about to let him off the hook.
“So the objects attached to the cinderblocks were wedding rings?” I asked.
Three head nods.
“Were they all male rings? Anything with diamonds in it?”
The gray-haired CSI agent, who I’d just noticed had a wart below his left eye, rested a hand on his knee. “It appears to be a combination. One male ring, possibly his, since he wasn’t wearing one. And three other rings. Two had diamonds on the band. The other was a simple band, platinum maybe.” The confirmation of what I’d seen floating in the cloudy water had simmered my immediate aggression toward Randy. My eyes drifted to a couple of rocks sticking above the sand, theories scrambling in my mind that was already cluttered with scattered memories at best.
Nick pulled up next to me, and I realized I’d been picking at my nails. Was this an old stress habit?
“His chest. Appeared he suffered a wound,” I said, looking for affirmation from the graying CSI agent.
“Yep, he did.” He sounded more like a Yankee version of Sam Shepherd. Kind of looked like him too.
“Do you know if it punctured his chest cavity?”
“Not likely. Looks like scrapes from the cinderblocks.”
I bit my lip. “Unless there’s another wound that penetrated his body, then it’s almost certain that he died from the drowning itself.”
“Good one, Alex,” Randy said.
I gave him a stern look, then addressed the CSI guys. “I guess there could be a possibility of drugs in his system.”
Before they could respond, Randy chimed in with, “True. Drugs could have killed him before he was tossed in the water. This whole setup could have been put together just to throw us off.” He nodded at everyone like he’d just discovered the secret to life immortal.
“I’m wondering if he might have been drugged just enough to keep him unconscious until the perp was able to create the cone of duct tape and place the man in the marsh. The toxicology will tell us everything. How soon until we can see that?”
Randy chuckled. “Didn’t I hear you were recently in the hospital after wrecking your car?”
“I’m here now. If you put a rush on it, how soon until we see the toxicology report?”
He checked his watch. “Preliminary, probably tomorrow morning. Full report, maybe two days later, if we’re lucky.”
Another agent walked up wearing rubber gloves and holding an evidence bag. A soggy wallet was inside.
“Sir, we’ve got an ID on the vic.” He held up a piece of paper, then lowered his eyes to look through bifocals. “A Christopher Barden, out of Beverly. From what we’ve been able to find out, he’s thirty-eight years old and works at Transamerica Financial in Boston.”
“Credit cards and cash still intact?”
“Well,” the young agent pulled off his glasses and chuckled once, “I can’t say how much cash he had on him. But there is cash in there, two hundred eighty bucks. I’d never seen a hundred-dollar bill before. Anyway, credit cards, license, even a soggy picture of his kids.”
“No pictures of his wife,” I said without putting much thought into it.
Randy spoke up. “Is that supposed to be strange? I mean, all of us need a break from the ball and chain occasionally.”
I slowly turned my head and eyed the tall dipshit.
“What did I say? You going to file a complaint? Come on, guys…and lady, let’s get back to work. We need to pull the body and other evidence attached to him and make sure we bring it back without destroying a thing.”
More divers arrived on the scene as they prepared to cut the body loose and bring it ashore. I heard them say they would actually conduct a preliminary autopsy report on-site, with the hopes of capturing pertinent information immediately after being exposed to air.
The light-gray sky grew darker, and the temperature started to drop. With my hair still damp, I tried to keep moving so I wouldn’t shiver. They pulled the body, and the medical examiner conducted the initial examination under a bank of portable lights with about ten people looking over his shoulder.
Standing there with my arms folded, my face felt frozen. Either the cold temperatures, or the tension of the scene, or an after-effect of my head injury had created a pulsating line of pain from both shoulder blades into my neck. I arched my neck and tried to rub the muscles. The effort seemed futile.
“You’re stressed from all of this, aren’t you?” Nick said, sidling up next to me.
“Stressed isn’t the right word. Keenly interested, I’d say. But I’m also frigid.”
“I knew you shouldn’t have gotten into that water. Doctors would probably cut my nuts off if they knew I let you do that.”
“We could replace you with Randy and make the world a better place,” I said, eyeing my partner for a moment as we watched a gaggle of CSI agents analyze the cinderblocks, string, and rings.
“That guy’s a piece of work,” Nick said.
I shook my head. “And he actually thought he had a chance with me? Did I used to be a ditzy, bow-headed bimbo looking for her MRS degree?”
“This isn’t Utah. Only two people in a marriage.”
“Funny,” I said, even though it wasn’t.
“He’s married himself, even though I’d heard he’s been separated off and on. Not that I care. TMIAAA.”
“What the hell does that mean?’
“Too Much Information About An Asshole.”
I snorted through my hand, and one of the CSI agents turned his head in my direction. I shrugged innocently.
A few minutes passed, and the abbreviated daylight was quickly disappearing. A few domestic thoughts entered my mind: mainly dinner, the kids, when Mark was getting home, and when our nanny would leave for good. But I also felt compelled to stay.
“It’s getting late. You need to get home. This day has been far too long for you, and way too much exertion,” Nick said, doing that fatherly thing again. He walked over to Randy.
I fumed a little. Okay, maybe a lot. I couldn’t just stand there like a well-behaved lady, ready to take my orders from a bunch of men. It didn’t seem…natural.
Randy gave instructions to two guys wearing MSP hats and badges. “Okay, so we have a preliminary plan. You two will visit the Barden residence and notify his wife of the death this evening. Ask some basic questions, document anything noteworthy. Make sure you show some compassion.”
I was shocked to hear Randy use that term, compassion. Maybe his superiors had given him that specific order during his last performance review.
Next, he turned and pointed a finger at Nick, then saw me and wagged his finger between us. “You guys can go back tomorrow and try to quiz Mrs. Barden further. I think you know how to conduct a thorough interview.”
“No worries,” Nick said. “We’ll keep you updated, as well as my immediate boss, Jerry.”
“Oh. Jerry,” Randy said, rocking forward on his shoes.
They had a history. Then again, Randy appeared to have an opinion on anyone who breathed, and a few who didn’t.
Randy took a phone call and walked away.
“That’s our cue. We’re on the next airboat to the mainland,” Nick said, walking toward the trail. “If I’m lucky, I’ll get home in time to eat a warm dinner cooked by Antonio.”
He could see me hold back. “You go ahead,” I said.
His arms fell against his jacket. “Don’t tell me you have this sense of duty to stick around until all the work is done? If that’s the case, you’ll be here all night.”
“No, I just need to, uh, clear up some things.”
His eyes found Randy, and he nodded. “I get it. I’ll take my time getting back to the airboats.”
“You don’t have to wait. You’re not my daddy.”
“I’m barely moving now,” he said, going in mock slow motion.
Just then I noticed Randy pocket his phone. I cut him off before he could join the others.
“You need something, Alex?”
“Uh…” I paused a second, wondering how our private conversations had gone in the past. I hoped I’d never led him on. The mere thought of it made me want to puke in the marsh.
He put a hand on my shoulder.
I slowly turned my head and eyed his hairy mitt. “Do you mind?”
“Feisty, aren’t you?”
My body temperature shot up twenty degrees.
“Randy, that ruse you used to walk in the tent? Not cool.” My hands were planted at my waist, my feet shoulder-width apart.
“Can’t I show a little compassion for a colleague? Jesus, Alex.” He ran his fingers through his hair.
“You just wanted a peep show.”
He chewed the inside of his cheek as he stared me down. After a few seconds, he glanced over my shoulder. “I need to get back and oversee this investigation. As you can see, this is an enormous operation. We’re dealing with a real sicko here, Alex.”
He’d essentially ignored me calling him out. I held up a hand. “You ever do that to me again, I’ll shove your balls down your throat.”
“Damn, that kind of turns me on, Alex.” He arched his eyebrows, then moved past me while bumping his shoulder against mine.
I almost swallowed my spit. I had to stop myself from sticking out a foot, then jumping on his back and pounding the shit out of his kidney until he cried like a baby.
“Randy, don’t you—”
“And thanks for the peep show,” he said without turning around.
I curled my hand into a fist and raised my arm.
“Alex, it’s not worth it.” Nick had grabbed my fist. “You’ll have ample opportunity to stick Randy in his rightful place. But wait until you can really kick his ass. I’ll even buy some popcorn and watch.”
He was right. And as we took the chilly airboat ride back to our car, I thought about how my next confrontation might be more dramatic than the last.
About the Author
A veteran of the corporate wars, former journalist, and true studier of human and social behavior, best-selling author John W. Mefford has been writing novels since he first entered the work force twenty-five years ago, although he never put words on paper until late 2009.
John writes novels full of intrigue, suspense, and thrills, but they also evoke an emotional connection with the characters.
When he’s not writing, he chases three kids around, slaves away in the yard, reads, takes in as many sports as time allows, watches all sorts of movies, and continues to make mental notes of people and societies across the land.
John lives in Frisco, Texas with his beautiful wife, three opinionated kids, and a feisty fat cat who rules the world.
Ending on Sunday 7th February at 11.59pm CST
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