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One Little Lie

One Little Lie

by Colleen Coble


Learn More | Meet Colleen Coble

One

Fifteen Years Later

“Last net of the night, Boss.”

Alfie Smith nodded at Isaac, his sixteen-year-old helper, and started the hoist motor to bring up the nets. Nearly eighty, he’d plied these waters aboard his boat Seacow for more than sixty years. The lights of Gulf Shores shimmered in the distance and more lights passed to his starboard side, other shrimping boats pulling up their last nets of the night before heading for a berth at Pensacola, Gulf Shores, or Mobile.

Sunrise pinked the clouds in the eastern sky and spread an iridescent shimmer over the waves. This was Alfie’s favorite time of day, when his muscles ached from good use and shrimp filled his hold. Most people said the smell was bad enough to gag a maggot, but to Alfie it was the aroma of money.

He glanced at Isaac, who looked like a surfer with his vivid blue eyes and his tanned face. His hair was streaked blond by the sun and tousled by the sea air. In spite of his good looks, he had a mariner’s soul and a natural aptitude for shrimping.

Isaac pulled out his phone. “Your daughter said this is your last trip. Maybe we should commemorate it somehow. I’ll take a picture.”

“She told you that?” Alfie scowled and stared out at the horizon. “Put that blasted phone away. Dr. Cosby is an old busybody, and she’s got her knickers in a knot over it. I’ll be out here on the water as long as I’m still kicking. She wants me to plop down in my recliner and die right there. I plan to keel over right here on my boat.”

Isaac gave him a doubtful look, then stuck his phone back in his pocket. “If you say so. Your daughter was pretty adamant.”

“She’s not the boss of me.” She was a good girl, much like her mother, who’d gone to glory ten years ago. But she was too big for her britches when it came to trying to dictate his actions. “I’m going out tomorrow, and you can take that to the bank along with your paycheck.”

Isaac pushed his curly hair out of his eyes. “You still want me then?”

“Yep. When you see me in the casket, you’ll know your job is done.”

That old goat of a doctor claimed Alfie’s ticker was having problems, but he felt fine. A little more tired maybe, but he was an old coot.

A harsh whine in the engine caught Alfie’s attention.

“The engine is straining. We must have a good haul,” Isaac said.

Alfie nodded and maneuvered the net over the sorting table, then dropped the contents. Something heavy banged on the table, and he flipped on the floodlights.

Isaac groaned. “There’s a big cooler in here, Alfie. It’s damaged the net.”

The big Grizzly cooler, one of the four-hundred-quart ones, was nearly five feet long. Alfie had always wanted one, but they were dear. The one he’d priced had been nearly seven hundred dollars. Mother Ocean had brought him a nice gift today.

It made Alfie madder than a wet hen the way people dumped things right in the shrimping grounds. They took their trash just far enough offshore to toss it overboard unnoticed. Sometimes he thought people did it on purpose to snare the shrimping nets.

Alfie turned to look at the big hole. “We’re done anyway.” The net would take some mending before he could go out again.

Isaac grunted as he pulled the cooler toward him. “Too heavy to be empty.” He struggled with the lid and managed to open it.

When Isaac cussed and stumbled back, Alfie hurried to the boy’s side. “What is it?”

Eyes wide, Isaac’s hand shook as he pointed. “I-I think there’s a dead woman in there.”

Alfie approached the cooler and peered inside. A bloody wedding dress was bunched inside. No, wait, not just a dress. A human torso. He backpedaled, spun around, and retched over the side of the boat. After he emptied his stomach, he reached for his phone.

• • •

Jane Hardy sat in a chair in front of the five executive committee members seated at a shiny curved table. Her golden retriever, Parker, lay at her feet. Her mouth was dry, and she wasn’t sure why she was even here. They couldn’t seriously be considering promoting her already, could they? But the group of three men and two women seemed to regard her with some sort of approval in their eyes.

Jane’s gaze met the pale-blue eyes of Victor Armstrong. He wasn’t smiling.

Armstrong cleared his throat. He was a big man in his fifties and the only city council member to wear a suit and tie. He sold commercial real estate and was well known in town.

She realized he’d spoken while she was daydreaming. “Excuse me?”

“No, sir.” She clamped her mouth shut because any kind of excuse she offered would make the situation worse. Jane tucked a strand of light-brown hair behind her ear and sent a nervous smile toward Mayor Lisa Chapman, who was seated beside him.

Lisa had befriended Jane the day she’d come to town. Lisa also owned Petit Charms, the beignet and pastries shop, but after being elected mayor, she’d given over running the shop to her daughter. Though in her fifties, Lisa appeared to be in her thirties with her unblemished dark skin and trim figure.

Lisa smiled. “We’re appointing you chief of police, Jane. Congratulations.”

Chief of police. Jane sat up straighter. “I-I don’t know what to say. I’m humbled by your trust in me.”

“You’re well qualified for the job. We conducted extensive interviews with the department. Your management skills are excellent, and you’re organized and highly intelligent. All of us”—Lisa glanced at Armstrong and put a slight emphasis on all before she continued—“know you’ll represent the department as well as your father has all these years.”

Jane felt woozy as the blood drained from her head. She hadn’t dared to hope for a permanent appointment. “Thank you so much, all of you. I won’t let you down.”

Armstrong frowned. “I must say I’m not sure about appointing a woman to this position. I’m sure it’s politically incorrect for me to voice my concerns, but I’ve never cared about being PC. You’re a small woman, Jane, and your appearance isn’t likely to put the fear of God into criminals. And you’ve made no progress with the vigilante cases over the past two months.”

Jane’s smile died on her lips, and she barely bit back the gasp of outrage gathering in her throat. “The vigilante is hardly a priority, Victor. We have a small police force, and putting drug dealers and criminals in jail has taken more of my attention.”

Lisa leapt to her defense. “Victor, I can’t believe you’d say something like that. Jane has acquitted herself well in every role she’s filled at the department from patrol to detective. As a detective she made more arrests than anyone we’ve employed.”

Armstrong shrugged. “The mayor has the final say, but I predict we’ll be back here in a few months reversing our decision.”

Lisa moved her paper and pencil around, a sure sign of her anger. When she spoke, her voice was careful and modulated. “I don’t want to hear anything more from you, Victor. This meeting is adjourned.” She rose and came around the table to shake Jane’s hand.

Jane clung to her hand for a long moment. “Thanks so much, Lisa.”

“My pleasure. We have full confidence you’ll do an outstanding job. I’m proud we have such a wonderful officer to step into that position.” Her eyes gleamed. “I’m sure the news of this will get around.”

Jane’s smile faded. Was the publicity of being female the reason she got the job?

She barely registered the congratulations and well-wishes before she escaped into the heat of the Alabama spring with Parker. Chief of police. Paul Baker would not be happy at this turn of events.

Could she do the job? Was Armstrong right about the challenges she’d face as a woman? She gave a slight shake of her head. Her town was riding on her ability to do this. She’d rise to the challenge. In a larger police force the chief ruled from the office, but with only five officers including her on the force, she had to be a hands-on chief of police.

Pelican Harbor sat along the blue water of Bon Secour Bay between Oyster Bay and Barnwell. The town had mostly escaped the influx of tourists heading to Gulf Shores for many years, but times changed when Pelican Harbor’s beignet shops and shotgun houses had appeared in National Geographic Traveler. The tourists brought prosperity to the village of two thousand souls, and the residents had begun to spruce up the wrought-iron balconies and paint the quaint French homes. The town reminded visitors of New Orleans’ famous French Quarter.

This was her town to protect now, and she intended to do it to the best of her ability.

She turned toward the coffee shop and bumped into a man who reached out to steady her. “Sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

His eyes crinkled at the corners as if smiling was his usual expression, though his lips were flat now. He towered over her five feet two inches, and she guessed him to be six foot. His shaved head made his large brown eyes even more expressive and compelling, and he exuded controlled energy and power under his very attractive surface. His muscular arms and face were tanned as if he’d spent a lot of time in the sun. Her immediate attraction to him made her take a step back. She steered clear of relationships. Losing someone you cared about hurt too much.

Those dark eyes smiled down at her. “You’re Jane Hardy.”

“Guilty as charged. You look familiar.”

A flush flared under his tan. “Maybe you’ve seen my picture around.” He held out his hand and shook hers. “Reid Dixon. You might have seen some of my documentaries.” He released her hand.

Of course she had. “You did the piece on cults a few years ago.”

“I did. I was about to grab a cup of coffee. Care to join me?”

She didn’t want to agree, but he was here for a reason, and she had a feeling that since he’d sought her out, she wouldn’t like whatever had brought him to town. Better to be prepared than blindsided.

“I was about to get coffee as well.” She walked beside him to Pelican Brews and had her dog settle in the shady overhang outside before she stepped into the building. The fresh aroma of the Guatemalan roast put a spring in her step. She ordered and paid for a coffee, then found a small table next to the window to wait for him.

He ordered black coffee and joined her. She took a sip of her coffee and waited for him to tell her what he wanted. When he didn’t speak, she filled the silence. “I’m not sure where you live, but I’m sure it’s far from our little burg.”

“I live in New Orleans. I’m here for a few weeks for a new documentary.” He gestured to the south. “I rented the Holbrook place.”

The brick mansion on the Bon Secour River hadn’t sold yet. Not many could afford its price tag. “Nice place.”

“Yeah, it is.” He sipped his coffee and glanced out the window. “You live here long?”

“Most of my life.”

“Nice area. My boy and I are going shrimping in a little while.”

What did he want with her? “It’s best at night.”

“Yes, but Will finishes his basketball camp in a couple of hours, and he’s jonesing to get out shrimping.” He glanced at her and opened his mouth to say something else, but her dispatcher called.

“Chief Hardy.”

“Jane, we’ve got a murder,” Olivia Davis said. “You need to get down to the pier. A shrimper pulled up a dead body.”

“On my way.” She grabbed her coffee and rose. “Nice to meet you, Reid. I need to go.”

“Of course. I’ll be contacting you later.”

It felt more like a threat than a promise.


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