O’Clair got up, put on a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt, glanced at Virginia’s cute face and naked shoulder sticking out from under the covers and went outside. It was seven twenty-five, big orange sun coming up over the ocean, clear sky, looked like another perfect day. O’Clair had moved to Florida from Detroit three months earlier, bought an eighteen unit motel on the beach called Pirate’s Cove, a friendly pirate on the sign surrounded by neon lights.
The motel was at the corner of Briny Avenue and South East Fifth Street in Pompano Beach. Four-story condo to the North and public beach access immediately south, and next to that, a massive empty lot that a developer was going to build a twenty-five story apartment building on.
The idea of living through two years of heavy construction had O’Clair concerned, but what could he could do about it?
He’d brought a paper grocery bag with him and walked around the pool, picking up empties, a dozen or so Lite Beer cans left by a group of kids from Boston University, who’d been staying at the motel the past three days. There were nine of them, three girls and six guys. They’d caravanned down from snowy Massachusetts a week after Christmas.
He fished a few more beer cans out of the pool with the skimmer, picked up cigarette butts that had been stamped out on the concrete patio, threw them in the bag with the empties. O’Clair straightened the lounge chairs in even rows, adjusted the back rests so they were all at the same angle, and noticed one of the chairs was missing. He scanned the pool area, didn’t see it, glanced over the short brick wall that separated the motel from the beach and there it was, twenty yards from where he was standing.
O’Clair kicked off his sandals, opened the gate and walked down three steps to the beach. As he got closer, he could see a girl asleep, stretched out on the lounge chair, one leg straight, the other slightly bent at the knee, arms at her sides. She was a knockout, long blond hair, thin and busty in denim Capris and a white tee shirt, early twenties. He didn’t recognize her, but figured she was with the group from Boston. She looked so peaceful he didn’t want to wake her. “You should go to your room.” O’Clair said, looking down at her.
The girl didn’t respond. He touched her shoulder, shook her gently. Either she was a heavy sleeper or something was wrong. He touched her neck, felt for a pulse, there wasn’t one. Her skin was cold, body starting to stiffen, definitely in the early stages of rigor. He looked at the sand around the lounge chair, surprised it was smooth, no footprints. Glanced toward the water at the joggers and walkers moving by. O’Clair went back up to the patio, wiped the sand off his feet and slipped his sandals on.
Virginia was standing behind the registration counter, yawning, eyes not quite open all the way, holding a mug of coffee.
“What do you want for breakfast?”
“There’s a dead girl on the beach.” O’Clair said, picking up the phone and dialing 911.
Virginia’s face went from a half smile, thinking he was kidding, to deadpan, seeing he wasn’t. “What happened?”
The cruiser was white with gold and green stripes that ran along the side, light- bar flashing. O’Clair watched it pull up in front, taking up three parking spaces. Two young-looking cops in tan uniforms got out and squared the caps on their heads. O’Clair went outside, met them and introduced himself.
“You the one found the body?” Officer Diaz, the dark-skinned cop said. O’Clair nodded.
“You know her?” Diaz pulled the brim lower over his eyes to block the morning sun, the top of a crisp white tee-shirt visible under the uniform.
“At first I thought she was with the group from BU. Now I don’t think so.”
“What’s BU?” The big pale one, officer Bush said, showing his weightlifter’s arms, uniform shirt bulging over his gut.
“Boston University. Nine kids staying with us, units 17 and 18.” O’Clair didn’t know the sleeping arrangements and didn’t care. They were paying $720 a night for two rooms, staying for five days.
An EMS van pulled up and parked facing the police cruiser. Two paramedics got out, opened the rear door, slid the gurney out and O’Clair led them through the breezeway, past the pool to the beach. The paramedics set the gurney next to the lounge chair, examined the girl and pronounced her dead.
Officer Bush said, “What time did you find her?”
“Around twenty to eight.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I looked at my watch,” O’Clair said, like it was a big mystery.
Diaz grinned, showing straight white teeth, reminding O’Clair of Erik Estrada, tan polyester uniform glinting in the morning sun. “Did you touch the body?”
“Her neck, felt for a pulse.” O’Clair saw Virginia wander down, standing at the seawall with her cup of coffee, watching them. Officer Bush went back to the cruiser and got stakes and tape, set up a perimeter around the dead girl, protecting the crime scene. The paramedics picked up the gurney and left, leaving the body for the evidence tech.
Diaz took a spiral-bound notebook out of his shirt pocket, wrote something and looked up at O’Clair. “Ever see her before? Maybe laying in the sun, walking the beach?”
“I don’t think so,” O’Clair said. “Someone like that I would remember.”
Diaz said, “You see anyone else?”
“College kids out by the pool.” He almost said drinking beer, but caught himself, doubted they were twenty-one and didn’t want to get them in trouble.
“What time was that?”
“Then what happened?”
“I went to bed.”
Diaz said, “Anything else you remember? Any noises?”
“The evidence tech arrived carrying a tool box, set it on the sand a few feet from the lounge chair, opened it, took out a camera and shot the crime scene from various angles. Diaz searched the surrounding area for evidence and Bush questioned the morning joggers and walkers wandering up toward the scene. O’Clair watched from the patio, leaning against the sea wall. Virginia had gone back to the office in case somebody decided to check in.
A guy in a tan lightweight suit walked by O’Clair and went down the steps to the beach. He had to be with homicide. The evidence tech, wearing white rubber gloves, was swabbing the dead girl’s fingernails. He glanced at the guy in the suit.
“What do you got?”
“I figured that unless you were doing her nails.”
“Not much here,” the evidence tech said, “couple hairs, maybe a latent, and something you’re not going to believe.” He whispered something to the suit O’Clair couldn’t hear.
“Jesus, I’ve seen a lot, but I haven’t seen that.” The homicide investigator shook his head. “Where’s the blood?”
“That’s what I want to know.”
“How’d she die?”
“You want a guess? That’s about all I can give you right now. She was asphyxiated, been gone about four hours.”
“Who found her?”
The evidence tech turned and pointed at O’Clair above them on the patio. The detective came up the steps and stood facing him.
“I’m Holland, Pompano Beach Homicide.” He had a goatee and a crooked nose, early thirties. “What’s your name, sir?”
“I understand you found her.”
“You down here for a vacation, or what?”
“I own the place, bought it three months ago.”
“Where you from, Cleveland, Buffalo, someplace like that?”
“Detroit,” O’Clair said.
“Even worse,” Holland said, breaking into a grin. “Just kidding. I got nothing against the Motor City.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” O’Clair said.
Holland wore his shield on his belt and a holstered Glock on his right hip.
“Living with a girl named Virginia, helps me run the place.”
“The hot number in the office?”
O’Clair fixed a hard stare on him.
“How’d you arrange that?”
“I must have some hidden talents.”
“You must,” Holland said. “Tell me what you saw this morning.”
“Same thing you did – dead girl on a lounge chair,” O’Clair said. “Know who she is?”
“No ID. No idea. Have to check with missing persons. Was the chair left on the beach?”
“It shouldn’t have been. The lounge chairs are supposed to be kept in the pool enclosure. It’s one of our rules here at Pirate’s Cove.”
“Your guests break the rules very often?”
“Oh, you know how it is. Get in the Jacuzzi with a beer, without taking a shower and you’ve broken three right there.” O’Clair paused, playing it straight. “The rules are from the previous owner, guy named Moran. I keep them posted ‘cause I think they’re funny. Someone sat down and wrote them in all seriousness.”
“What do you think happened? This girl was walking by, and got tired, saw your place, went up got a lounge chair, brought it to the beach, laid down and died in her sleep?”
“I’d ask the medical examiner.”
The evidence tech was taking off the rubber gloves, closing the top of the tool box.
Holland said, “What else did you see?”
“You’re asking the wrong question,” O’Clair said. “It’s not what I saw, it’s what I didn’t see.”
“OK. What didn’t you see?”
“There were no footprints in the sand. Like she was beamed there.”
“So the wind erased them,” Holland said.
“You really believe that?”
“It’s the only plausible explanation I can think of.”
“What else didn’t you see?”
“No obvious cause of death. No evidence of a struggle. In fact, no evidence at all.” O’Clair looked at Holland, caught something in his expression.
“You sound like you know the trade,” Holland said. “What’d you do before you became an innkeeper.”
“Worked homicide in Detroit.”
Holland grinned. “I had a feeling. Then you must’ve seen her eyes were missing, right?” Bulbs removed, empty sockets.”
“But no blood,” O’Clair said. “So it was done somewhere else. Find the primary crime scene, you’ll find the evidence.”
“You weren’t going to say anything?”
“It’s not my case,” O’Clair said. “I figured somebody was going to notice sooner or later. It wasn’t you or the evidence tech it would’ve been the ME.”
“Why do you think the girl ended up here?”
“I have no idea. Why don’t you roll her over, maybe you’ll find something.” Occasionally there was a crucial piece of evidence under the body, a lead. It could’ve been a round that would be tested for ballistics comparison against other homicides. It could’ve been money or drugs, suggesting a possible motive, or it could’ve been a cell phone that led to the possible killer or killers. There was nothing under the dead girl. No ID. No cell phone. Her body was bagged and the remains taken to the Broward County Medical Examiner’s office. They took O’Clair’s lounge chair too.
“It’s evidence,” Holland said. “You’ll get it back eventually.”
O’Clair doubted it. He knew what happened to evidence.
Bush and Diaz went upstairs and woke the BU students, and brought them down to the pool, nine kids looking hung over, yawning. eight twenty in the morning was the middle of the night for them. O’Clair had noticed they usually didn’t get up till after noon. Holland questioned them, one by one, showed photos of the dead girl, took statements and sent them back to their rooms. No one knew or had ever seen the girl before. No one had seen anything suspicious or heard anything during the night.
The MacGuidwins from Mt. Pearl, Newfoundland in Unit 2, who had complained about the students making too much noise, were questioned next by Holland. O’Clair watched the fair-skinned, red-haired couple shaking their heads.
As it got hotter, Holland commandeered Unit 7, his makeshift interrogation room and brought the other renters in-two-by two for questioning. There were the Burns, Susan and Randy, from Troy, Michigan, The Mitchells, Joe and Jean from San Antonio, Texas, the Belmonts, John and Shannon from Chicago, Illinois and the Mayers, Steve and Julie from Syracuse, New York. Steve Mayer woke up with four alarm heartburn at 3:30 a.m., got up, took a Nexium, walked out by the pool and remembered seeing the lounge chair on the beach, but didn’t think anything of it. None of the other renters saw or heard anything.
O’Clair walked Holland out to his car at eleven twenty, glad to finally get rid of him.
“Miss the life?” Holland said.
“Are you kidding?”
“Some things about it I’ll bet.” He handed O’Clair a card. “Call me if you think of something.”
She drove back from her date with Skip in Miami. What kind of fifty-year-old man calls himself Skip? God he was boring, too, talking about injection molded parts his former company made.
He’d put his champagne flute down, eyes lit up and said, ”Escutcheon plates, center console assemblies and sail panels.”
Sorry she’d asked.
“We had twenty-five presses ranging in size from fifty-five tons to fifteen hundred.”
“Wow is right. We cranked out thousands of parts a day.”
She thought Skip might soil himself he was so excited. The pros: she’d only been with him an hour or so and had made twelve-hundred dollars. The cons: he was boring and he had bad breath.
Now she was on Interstate ninety five almost to Pompano, took the Atlantic Boulevard exit and decided to stop at Publix, pick up a bottle of wine and some groceries. Pulled in and had her pick of spaces in the almost empty lot. She went in and bought a few things. When she came out there was a man on crutches moving slowly, trying to carry a plastic grocery bag in one of his right hand and hold onto the crutch. She caught up yo him and said, “Looks like you can use some help.”
“If you could grab the bag.”
“Where’s your car?”
“Right here,” he said, stopping behind a silver Buick.
She took the grocery bag from him. “What happened to your foot?”
“Oh that must hurt.” Now she recognized him. He was a client. They’d met at the Ritz-Carlton in Lauderdale. She couldn’t think of his name, and wondered if she should say something.
He pressed a button on the key fob he was holding and the trunk popped open. She reached in and put the bag in the trunk, and felt a wet cloth pressed on her face, it smelled sweet. She tried to fight but didn’t have the strength. She started to fade and felt him lift her off the ground.