The Texas Murder Files Series · Book two
One tenacious local detective can only get the help he needs from a former forensic photographer with a serial killer on the loose in the new romantic thriller from New York Times bestselling author Laura Griffin.
When former forensic photographer Miranda Rhoads moves to the seaside town of Lost Beach, she’s decided to make her living as a wildlife photographer and put crime scenes behind her. But her plans are quickly upended when one morning, she comes across a couple sleeping in a canoe, entwined in an embrace. Looking closer, she realizes the man and woman aren’t asleep—they’ve been murdered.
Detective Joel Breda sets out to find answers–not only about the unidentified victims in the marshy death scene, but also about the aloof and beautiful photographer who seems to know more about his investigation than he does.
As they begin to unravel the motivation of a merciless serial killer, Miranda and Joel must race against the clock to make an arrest before the killer can find them first.
“A thrilling suspense plot with a believable love story… Griffin takes care to develop a satisfying and complex mystery without sacrificing time for Joel and Miranda to build trust and chemistry as their partnership moves from professional to personal. Series fans will not be disappointed.”
— Publishers Weekly
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The light was perfect, but she didn’t have long.
Miranda Rhoads dipped the paddle and glided smoothly through the water as she composed the shot. Cattails in the foreground, the tall lighthouse a distant spire. In between, the bay was a vast mirror that reflected the pinkening sky.
She lowered the blade of her paddle again, this time pushing off the spongy bottom to maneuver around a clump of reeds. This was it. She balanced the paddle on her thighs and adjusted the strap around her neck. Anticipation thrummed through her as she lifted the camera. Conditions were exactly what she’d hoped for when she saw the weather report last night and remembered one of her father’s sayings: Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
Miranda took a deep breath and waited. Seconds and minutes slipped by, and she let her mind drift like the kayak. The humid air settled around her. She listened to the hum of insects in the marshes behind her, a trilling chorus that swelled and subsided with the breeze. She took another deep breath and for a perfect, endless moment she felt truly okay. Her thoughts were clear and crisp. The sunlight-saturated air seemed to vibrate around her. The day was still new, limitless, and she gave in to the notion that she was going to be all right.
Movement in the corner of her eye.
She remained utterly still as a great blue heron stepped from the reeds, tall and elegant on his spindly legs. Another step. Miranda held her breath and brushed her fingertip over the shutter button. If he sensed her watching, he didn’t show it.
She waited for the shot. It was instinct now. Like a hunter. Another deep breath and a long respiratory pause as she stayed motionless.
He stepped closer and dipped his head down. Then he lifted his head and turned toward her, regarding her with a regal look. Posing?
His silhouette was black and perfect against the fiery sky. Miranda’s heart hammered.
This was why she’d come here. This was why she put up with lukewarm showers and rusty water and a bleating alarm clock at four thirty a.m. This was why she schlepped her kayak to the dock all alone, slapping at mosquitos before her first sip of coffee. Photography was all about light, and mornings offered the best chance of getting something useful. Not a guarantee but a chance, and it paid to play the odds. She couldn’t sell what she didn’t have.
Another careful step. Click click.
The heron turned and took wing. She lowered the camera and watched him soar over the marsh, then swoop down into another clump of reeds.
Miranda sighed. Not bad for a day that had barely begun.
She shifted the camera under her arm and picked up the paddle, scanning the wetlands for new possibilities. She had thirty minutes left. More, if the distant line of storm clouds lingered off the coast.
Her paddle snagged on something. She spotted a slim yellow cord stretched taut across the reeds. She paddled closer and spied something green tucked among the cattails. A canoe.
An explosion of feathers nearby made her heart lurch as a trio of white ibis flapped away. Behind her, something thrashed in the water. A fish? A cottonmouth?
Her attention snapped back to the boat. Her heart was thudding now as she drifted closer. The air felt charged, and all her senses went on high alert. Habits kicked in. She noted the direction of the wind. She noted the height of the sun. She noted the air, damp and pungent, pressing around her. Her stomach clenched tightly as she took a slow, shallow stroke, careful not to bump the canoe with her kayak as she peered over the side.
They looked peaceful, with their long limbs intertwined. His arm around her was protective. Tender.
Miranda’s vision blurred. Her brain recoiled from the sight in front of her, but she couldn’t turn away, couldn’t stop from registering every detail.
The man’s head was nestled on the woman’s shoulder just beneath her chin, and their pale skin looked rosy in the morning glow. An inch of water filled the bottom of the canoe. The woman’s dark braid drifted there like a snake.
She stared unblinking at the morning sky.
Detective Joel Breda pulled into the marina parking lot and slid his truck into a space beside a dusty police cruiser. He scanned the boats bobbing in their slips before turning his attention to the caliche lot. He recognized most of the vehicles, including the hulking old Suburban that belonged to the Lost Beach police chief.
Joel surveyed the two-story building as he got out. The marina occupied the first level, and a seafood restaurant with sweeping views of Laguna Madre occupied the top. Neither was open yet, but the weathered wooden bait shop near the docks would have been busy since sunrise. The shop owner stood beside his hut now, smoking a cigarette and watching a cluster of boats about a hundred yards offshore.
“Thought you were in Corpus.”
Joel turned to see Nicole Lawson trudging toward him. She wore a blue Lost Beach PD golf shirt and black rubber waders that were covered in muck.
“Not anymore,” Joel said. “Who’s here?”
“McDeere got here first. Then the chief. Still no sign of the ME.” Nicole turned toward the water, and Joel followed her gaze to the boats. An LBPD speedboat and several small skiffs blocked his view of the crime scene.
“What do we know?” Joel asked.
“So far, not much. Two victims, both shot in the gut. Randy called it in.”
Joel cast a glance at the bait shop owner as he flicked his cigarette to the ground. Randy chain-smoked when he was nervous. He’d probably gone through half a pack by now.
Nicole turned to face him. Her long red hair was tied in a messy bun instead of her usual braid, which made Joel think she’d been called out of bed.
“Male and female?” he asked.
“Yep. And they’re young, too. Maybe early twenties.”
Something in her tone caught his attention. He eased closer and lowered his voice. “What is it?”
She shook her head. “Nothing, just… freaky crime scene.”
She’d been out there already, and Joel felt a stab of regret that he’d been off island when he got the call. He lived less than a mile away from here and should have been the first one on scene.
He studied Nicole’s tense expression. “Does it look like a murder? A murder-suicide? A suicide pact?”
“Don’t know.” She wiped her brow with the back of her forearm. “Could be any of those. I didn’t see a weapon aboard, though. Course, I didn’t touch anything.”
“Good.” Joel stepped around her and reached into the bed of his truck to unlock the chrome toolbox.
“Don’t bother with waders,” she told him. “With the storm coming, they’re bringing everything in.”
He glanced at the sky. Given the angry gray clouds rolling in, it wasn’t a bad call. He shoved his waders aside and grabbed his binoculars.
“Sure you want in on this?” she asked. “Technically, you’re on vacation till Thursday.”
“I’m sure.” The department had only three fulltime detectives—himself, Emmet, and Owen. Nicole was good, but she was still in training.
“I’m just saying,” she went on. “You could probably let Emmet take the lead with this one.”
Joel slammed the toolbox shut, not bothering to argue about it. “Fill me in as we walk.”
She fell into step beside him, and her waders made little squeaking sounds. “So. How was the wedding?”
She cut a look at him. “Really?”
“Yeah. Anyone call the sheriff’s office?” he asked. The last thing he wanted to talk about was the wedding he’d just attended.
“The chief called them. They’re sending down one of their CSIs.”
“Bollinger, I think.”
“You don’t like him?”
“Well, he should be here soon.” She checked her watch. “We called them forty-five minutes ago.”
“He’ll be late, count on it.” Yet another reason the chief had probably decided to tow the canoe in. Joel passed a row of fishing rigs and catamarans, all neatly covered and secured in their slips. He reached the end of the dock and lifted the binoculars.
The distant crime scene snapped into focus. Chief Brady stood at the helm of the police boat as Emmet and Owen attached a line to the bow of the canoe. Joel studied the long green boat. It didn’t look like a rental from one of the island’s rec shops.
The police boat got moving, and the bow of the canoe tipped up. Joel muttered a curse as he imagined the canoe’s contents shifting to the stern.
“We don’t have much choice with the rain coming,” Nicole said, clearly picking up on his concern.
“Tell me they got pictures.”
“Emmet had the camera.”
“Who found them?”
“Some woman in a kayak. She paddled to the marina to report it.”
Joel lowered the binoculars. “Why didn’t she call it in herself?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where is she now?”
“Um…” She turned around and scanned the parking lot. “McDeere was getting her statement. I’m sure she didn’t leave yet. There she is. Just past the boat trailers.”
“Black Jeep, red kayak?”
“That’s her. Here, let me use your binocs while you talk to her.”
Joel handed them over and returned to the parking lot, watching the woman as he approached. She stood on the running board of the Jeep, struggling with a bungee cord as she secured her kayak to the roll bar.
“Need a hand?” Joel asked.
“I’m good.” The woman didn’t look up. She had honey-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore stretchy black pants that clung to her curves and a loose white top over a black sports bra. Her cheeks were flushed from exertion, but the pissed-off look on her face warned Joel not to intervene as she wrestled with the final hook. After getting it attached, she stepped down.
“I’m Joel Breda, Lost Beach PD.”
She gazed up at him and dusted her hands on her pants. “Miranda Rhoads.” Her gaze dropped to the detective’s shield clipped to his belt. When she looked up again, her caramel-colored eyes were wary.
“I already gave a detailed statement to Officer McDeere,” she said. “And I talked to someone named Lawson.”
“I understand, ma’am. I just have some follow-ups.”
She blew out a breath and tucked a loose curl behind her ear. “All right.”
“Care to sit down?” He nodded at a picnic table not far from the bait shop.
“No, thanks. One second.” She eased past him and opened the door of her Jeep, then reached across the seat and popped open the glove compartment. She pulled out a small red zipper pouch. “I just need to clean this,” she said, propping her foot on the running board.
She wore silver flip-flops, and Joel saw a gash on the side of her little toe. The cut was bleeding. He hadn’t noticed, probably because he’d been distracted by the rest of her.
“What’d you do there?” he asked.
She tore open a sterile wipe and dabbed at the cut. “I got out of my kayak to look at the canoe and stepped on a board covered in barnacles.”
“You had a tetanus shot recently?”
She laughed. “Uh, yeah.”
Joel looked at her. “Why is that funny?”
Her smile disappeared. “It’s not.”
She reached into the Jeep again to get rid of the wet wipe and tossed the pouch on the seat. Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders.
“Sorry. Okay. What were your questions?”
Joel looked her over, puzzled by her brisk attitude. Typically, innocent witnesses were pretty deferential with cops. Then again, she’d had a rough morning and people handled stress in different ways.
“Tell me how you found the boat,” he said. “What were you doing out there?”
She rested her hands on her hips and gazed at the bay. Her arms were tanned and toned, as though she spent a lot of time in her kayak.
“I got to the marina about five fifteen,” she said.
“I was photographing the sunrise.”
“Okay. And you were coming from where?”
“The north end of the island. I’m renting a beach house about a mile from here.”
“I put in my kayak. Paddled about a hundred yards out, toward the marshes near the nature center. As the sky brightened, I took a series of photographs. Nautical twilight is the best time to get silhouettes. That’s between first light and sunrise.” She looked at him, probably sensing that he didn’t know shit about photography. But fishing he knew, and he understood the different phases of daylight on this bay.
“Anyway, as I was paddling, I scared up some birds.” A lock of hair blew against her face, and she peeled it away. Joel noticed her hand was trembling. “That’s when I spotted a yellow line.”
“A fishing line?”
“No, like a rope. A thin one. It was attached to a canoe hidden in some cattails.” She paused, and a somber look came over her face. “That’s when I saw them.”
“And you could tell they were dead?”
“Yes.” She broke eye contact and looked at the bay again. The wind had picked up, and the water was getting choppy. “There was no mistaking it. I mean, you’ll see when they bring them in.”
“You know what time this was?” he asked.
“About six forty.”
Joel watched her face as she looked out over the water. The boats were coming in, and he could hear the motors getting closer. But he was more interested in Miranda Rhoads’s carefully calm expression.
“Do you recall any noises?” he asked.
She looked at him. “Noises?”
“When you were out on the water taking pictures. Did you hear any gunshots? Or yelling, screaming, anything like that?”
“Think back. Sometimes seagulls screeching can sound similar to—”
“I didn’t hear anything like that.” She was adamant. “I didn’t hear anyone or see anyone until I got back to the marina and asked the guy at the bait shop for help.” She turned to look at Randy, who was smoking another cigarette and talking with McDeere. “That guy there, with the beard.”
“So, you didn’t have a cell phone out there with you?” Joel asked.
“Not on the kayak, no. I keep it locked in the console of my Jeep.”
“All right. And when you arrived here, did you see any other cars in the lot?”
She shook her head. “I was the first one.”
“Any other boats? Fishermen?”
“What about pedestrians? Dog walkers?” He nodded at the marshland between the marina and the nature center. “Some people use the trails in the morning.”
“There was no one out when I first got here. At least, not that I saw. Only person I noticed was a cyclist on the highway. He was riding along the shoulder.”
That caught Joel’s interest. “Where, exactly?”
She blew out a sigh. “He was on a bike about fifty yards north of the turnoff for the marina. He was heading north. I described him to McDeere. He had on a light-colored T-shirt and a baseball cap. I remember noticing because he should have been wearing a helmet, especially riding in the dark like that.”
Joel cast a glance at McDeere, who was watching him now with a look Joel couldn’t read. He had no doubt the officer would have taken all this down. A former Marine, McDeere was thorough and paid attention to details. It was one of the things Joel liked about working with him.
“As I said, I gave all this to the officer already.”
Joel looked at the witness. Her cheeks were still pink, and she seemed antsy. Like she was itching to leave. She glanced over Joel’s shoulder, and her brow furrowed.
Joel turned to see the ME’s van swinging into the lot, followed by a white SUV. Both vehicles pulled into spaces near the bait shop. The door to the SUV opened, and Bollinger hopped out.
Joel checked his watch. Almost an hour since Nicole had called the county for a crime scene investigator. Joel gritted his teeth.
“Detective? Is that all right?”
He shifted his attention back to the witness. Those caramel-colored eyes looked worried now.
“I need to head out. I’m late for something.” She nodded toward the bait shop. “If you have any more follow-ups, your officer there has all my contact information. And he gave me his card.”
Joel didn’t want to let her go, but he didn’t have a reason to keep her here, either. The boats were pulling in, and Joel wanted to get a look at everything before the ME’s people started.
“Let me see that card,” he said.
She hesitated a moment before pulling a card from her bra and handing it over. Joel took out a pen and wrote on the back.
“That’s my mobile,” he said. “Call me if you remember anything else.”
“Thank you for your time today.”
She stepped around him to open the Jeep, and Joel moved out of the way.
Bollinger was still with his vehicle, zipping into his white Tyvek suit. Meanwhile, the boats had docked, and Emmet was securing the canoe to a cleat.
Thunder rumbled, and Joel glanced at the sky just in time to catch the first fat raindrops. He looked at the canoe that held two dead young people, along with any forensic evidence he hoped to recover. All of it was going to get drenched.
Joel started for the dock.
He turned around. Miranda wore a rain jacket now with a hood that covered her head. Wherever she was going, she was about to get soaked.
“Make sure they bag her hands,” she told him.
“The female victim,” she said. “She’s holding a feather. You don’t want it getting lost in transport, so tell your CSI to make sure to bag her hands.”