Inaugural novel in the Robert Mercer mystery series. Set in sultry Savannah, GA this mystery is packed with local color and unexpected twists.
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Wealthy and beautiful Sarah Reid hires private detective Robert Mercer to investigate her husband Barry, a real estate mogul whom she believes may be unfaithful. Mercer embarks on a case of possible identity theft and probable murder. He uncovers a vicious web of real estate fraud and jewelry theft that leads him to Kelly, an alluring woman with a few secrets of her own.
As Mercer pieces the puzzle together, the dead bodies begin to pile up and events threaten to spin out of control. With his canine partner Ox, a large black German Shepherd dog, and John Sutlive, an old Marine buddy, Mercer and his motley crew do battle with a small army of villains in a fight to the death for his client.
This novel, set in sultry and mysterious Savannah, Georgia, is the inaugural book in the Robert Mercer detective series of great mysteries with irresistible supernatural twists.
DeVaughn Harris paced furiously in the small break room just outside his office. His mind worked through every intricate detail of his anticipated night with Sadie. Everything must be perfect. When unforeseen circumstances accelerated his plans earlier that morning, DeVaughn allowed himself to become irritated for a bit, then he focused his attention again on the job at hand.
His mind kept wandering back to Sadie. He had trouble thinking of anything else.
She was DeVaughn’s most recent obsession. He probably knew the woman’s routine better than she knew it herself.
Business boomed during the holiday season at the Savannah Automotive Repair Shop. The heavy traffic created by an endless stream of impatient shoppers out buying last minute Christmas gifts caused a swell in the number of fender-benders. But his business thrived no matter what the time of year. The shop’s reputation for quality repairs done right the first time generated loyal customers whose word-of-mouth testimony kept new customers coming.
The shop reflected the personality of its owner. It was meticulously clean and orderly. Every aspect of the repair process followed a precise order laid out by DeVaughn, right down to the color coded of key fobs on the pegboard hooks behind the counter. There was a controlled, methodic flow to the daily routine.
Quietly soothing classical music greeted customers in the lobby. DeVaughn never raised his voice with his customers, insisting his employees embrace the maxim, “the customer is always right.” His crew only knew he was upset or frustrated when he began to sigh frequently.
Though he wasn’t a tall man, DeVaughn was powerfully built. He looked like a fire hydrant—sturdy and solid. His rough and hard physical appearance contrasted with an unexpectedly calm and soft-spoken voice.
The expression “wouldn’t hurt a fly” just doesn’t work in Savannah…anyone who’s ever experienced the mosquitoes and horseflies there will attest to the fact those bloodthirsty insects can cure anyone of an aversion to killing. But the handful of people who could claim to know DeVaughn fairly well would say he put the “gentle” in “Southern gentleman.”
DeVaughn was not bringing Sadie a Christmas present tonight, but that would be okay. He knew she would not be disappointed. His visit was unexpected. He planned to surprise her.
He had meticulously planned her murder for weeks. He thoroughly scouted the area, particularly the houses closest to hers. He knew her routines, habits, and idiosyncrasies. He didn’t have anything against her. He didn’t even know her personally. He never met or even heard of the woman before his client offered the contract. In truth, after weeks of watching her, he didn’t understand why anyone wanted her dead.
Now he’d been ordered to move up the schedule. The disruption caused him heartburn because he was methodical and the change represented a disruption of his timing, but also because he suspected there was no apparent reason for the change in plans other than to reinforce how vulnerable he was to his client.
Normally, DeVaughn simply did the work. It was just business, nothing personal. Under his current set of circumstances, he had little choice.
A large glass window in the wall separating DeVaughn’s office and the reception area from the rest of the body shop muffled all but the loudest noises. Behind the reception desk, on the far side of his office wall, a small break room was set aside for the employees. He could be seen by the crew but not his customers and heard by neither. Unless he yelled at the top of his lungs, which he would never do, the ambient noise of auto repairs smothered any voices coming from his office or the break room.
From the repair bays, Frank Miller noticed his boss’ agitated pacing through the window. He stopped to watch DeVaughn for a few seconds. When the boss let himself get worked up like this, Frank worried about him. The man seemed to bottle up all his stress inside and something was obviously eating at him today.
DeVaughn was a good employer. He paid excellent hourly wages and offered solid insurance benefits for jobs that were not without risks. He stressed safety on the job and demonstrated genuine concern for the welfare of his employees. The only man DeVaughn fired in the last few years had proved to have a drug problem and nearly got himself killed on the job. Tim came to work impaired and made a careless mistake with a hydraulic jack.
Frank saved the man’s life, but couldn’t help him save his job. When Tim told the hospital staff that he wanted to file a worker’s compensation claim, routine blood tests were drawn. Drugs were detected. Not only was his claim denied, but DeVaughn also got a stern letter from the insurance company suggesting that he conduct more stringent drug screening of his employees or risk having to find another carrier with whom to do business.
DeVaughn let Tim go, but seemed apologetic and actually paid him a little severance to help until he found another job, which cemented the loyalty of his remaining employees.
Frank grunted audibly. The mechanics nearest him recognized his signal and looked at Frank, who perceptibly nodded toward the window. Word passed quickly down the line and through the shop. Keep busy, or look busy. The crew knew from experience that avoiding the boss when he was in one of these spells was the best way to have it blow over quickly.
After a few minutes of more pacing, DeVaughn realized he was calling attention to himself. His plans had moved up by a day or two, nothing more. Frustration grew from his sense of being a marionette at the mercy of unseen hands, helpless but to do his master’s bidding. He stepped inside his office and gently closed the door behind him.
Safely inside the privacy of his office, he checked his bag for tonight’s job—just an old overnight traveling case. He carefully handled the duct tape, moving aside a brown paper bag containing of a couple of sandwiches, an energy drink, a bottle of water and a banana. Underneath it was the bag from Home Depot. It held his brand new stubby hammer and scratch awl purchased especially for the occasion. Beneath that were a hunting knife, alarm clock, ten foot length of rope, small box of matches, change of clothing, ski mask, flashlight, small package of surgical gloves, and a clean nine millimeter automatic with untraceable serial numbers, complete with an extra clip—nope, he hadn’t forgotten a thing.
His job was simply to kill the old lady, not to torture her. Some things he packed merely as contingency planning. He carried the pistol in case an unexpected visitor or innocent bystander caught him in the act and gave him no choice but to eliminate a witness. DeVaughn believed in planning ahead.
It was imperative to his client that his intended victim’s death look like either an accident or the result of natural causes. First and foremost, she needed to die, but if DeVaughn staged it to look like an accident, he maintained a satisfied customer who would compensate him well for his efforts. His view of this sideline business had evolved from simply thinking the money was nice to the point he considered this talent of his to be a superb retirement plan.
The body shop laundered his sideline earnings for him and his nice-guy business persona provided a good cover. He had a million plus in hard assets, not counting his cash on hand. He had next to nothing in liabilities. He maintained a couple of loans just to keep the interest deduction and so he stood less chance of drawing attention to himself. DeVaughn could sell out tomorrow and walk away to sunny Costa Rica with close to two million bucks after taxes.
The adrenaline rush he got from taking the life of another human being, the exhilaration and delicious anticipation of the planning kept him going. Still, the odds of being caught increased with each contract kill. The more he made, the more he stood to lose. Truthfully, it made the adrenaline rush even more intense.
He was really, really good at what he did. The meticulous concentration he learned to apply as an automotive mechanic by day served him well when he worked as a “murder mechanic” by night. For his thirty pieces of silver, he brought death to the unsuspecting.
# # #
When the busy shop finally cleared out for the evening, Frank buzzed his office phone to tell him the shop was secured for closing. DeVaughn acknowledged him by with a curt, “Good night.”
Roughly fifteen minutes later, DeVaughn emerged from his office dressed completely in black except for a well-worn brown leather bomber jacket. He quickly swapped a cold license plate he borrowed from one customer’s car onto one of his loaner vehicles. He made sure the tag was valid and chose a customer’s car of similar make and model to the loaner.
If the cops ran the plates, they’d see the same make of vehicle associated with the customer’s tag number and figure it was a dead-end lead. The colors didn’t match the customer’s car sitting in his secured compound, making it easy for the customer to prove he was not involved.
Focused and ready, he cranked the engine and headed east out of Savannah toward the beach. The fading light of the sunset hindered his ability check his rear view mirror periodically for a tail. He was fairly sure he didn’t have one, but it was now a part of his routine. Learning of the existence of one video forever altered the degree of caution he now exercised religiously.
He passed only one or two cars on the lonely highway connecting the mainland to Tybee Island. The long, narrow road lined with palm trees and oleander bushes cut through the pristine marshes and crossed a series of rivers snaking inland from the coast. The sign for Fort Pulaski let him know he was almost there.
Many of the year-round residents of the island were at the malls, scurrying around doing last minute shopping. It felt like he had Tybee to himself. He set the cruise control for the decreased speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour and rolled onto the island. A colorfully lighted Santa wearing beach trunks and drinking a tropical cocktail complete with a decorative umbrella sat next to the “Welcome to Tybee Island” sign greeting visitors to the beach.
Once across the Lazaretto Creek Bridge, he saw the old-fashioned Christmas decorations hanging from street lamps and spanning the highway at regular intervals. It made him wonder briefly how they plugged the lights in for power and how they hung them all the way across the road, but quickly he snapped his attention back to his driving. He could not afford a mental lapse; those get you caught, or killed.
Tybee Island protects the coast of Savannah from the Atlantic Ocean. It is the outermost barrier island and home to Savannah Beach. It’s a small island; only about three miles long, with a redneck Key West feel to it. More residential than commercial, it is a quaint and quirky throw back to a simpler time. Brightly painted little cottages dot the island, interspersed with larger new multi-story beach homes built on the better lots after the razing the original houses.
Beach rats, serious fishermen, bohemian artists, a few hard-core drunks, and other colorful characters dominated ownership of the houses in the interior corridor of the island. The precious waterfront property on the ocean or along a brief stretch of the back river either belonged to lifelong residents or had been snapped up by the Savannah elite or nouveau riche from Atlanta. In truth, the well-to-do owners of the most expensive properties did not use them as primary residences, but as vacation escapes only visited a few times a year. To be a local and live in one of these exclusive properties meant your family had lived on Tybee for a very long time and the Stephens-Daye bill had grandfathered in your property taxes.
DeVaughn’s route onto the island, Highway 80 is just called the Beach Road by most of the locals. After crossing the Lazaretto Creek Bridge, the road runs to the northern point of the island, changes its name to Butler Avenue, takes a hairpin right turn in front of the breakers, then runs parallel to the beach. It stops at the southern tip of the island where it runs out of real estate. A block west from Butler, running parallel to it, is Jones Avenue, the other central north-south thoroughfare running the length of the island. In places, the Tybee Island is only a few blocks wide, making the beach accessible even on bare feet ever since the city replaced the main intersection crosswalks with brick pavers rather than black asphalt.
Tonight Tybee looked deserted. DeVaughn drove cautiously down Butler Avenue. Even a traffic ticket provided evidence he’d been on the island. It created a trail he did not want to leave. DeVaughn thought of himself as a ghost, coming and going without a trace.
There was a bit more than the typical risk involved performing tonight’s work. The island only had the one escape route by land. If the alarm went out and cops blocked off the Lazaretto Creek Bridge to outbound traffic, DeVaughn was trapped. It would only be a matter of time before a manhunt tracked him down. There was no other way off the island except by boat. Since the water was too cold to swim, that wasn’t an option.
It was dark as he slowly cruised toward his destination. No one noticed as he pulled the car quietly into the driveway of his carefully chosen hideout.
The biggest risk was now, while he was exposed and out in the open. Once inside the garage, he would be relatively safe. He used the garage door opener he had stolen on his previous scouting mission. He drove inside the garage and shut the door behind him to minimize his exposure to any traffic on the street, unlikely though it was.
He had done his homework thoroughly. Sadie Elkins lived close enough to this base of operations that he could watch from an upstairs bedroom window and wait for her lights to go off. She lived at the beach year round. The rich doctor from Atlanta who owned this hideout DeVaughn selected for the evening only visited his property a few times a year. Most of the time the house sat vacant as it had been tonight, until the hit man pulled inside the garage.
What the doctor doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
DeVaughn was a hunter watching and waiting for his prey, perched in an expensive, high tech deer stand.
Before heading down to the beach, DeVaughn had used a disposable cell phone to call the doctor’s home number in Atlanta. He knew the beach house was mostly an investment, a future retirement home for the cancer specialist researching the disease at Emory University. DeVaughn gambled the owner would not be visiting this weekend, but with an abundance of caution, wanted to confirm his assumption.
A man had answered the phone and DeVaughn pretended to have a bad connection, then quickly thumbed the button to disconnect the call. He could now relax a little and bide his time. The good doctor was not coming to Tybee for the weekend.
Settled into a chair in the bedroom with the best view of Sadie’s house, DeVaughn ate his sandwiches. An uncomfortable thought crossed his mind.
What if the doctor lent his place out to friends for the weekend?
It had not occurred to him until now that someone other than the homeowner could suddenly show up. A serious bump up in the body count would not reflect well on his professionalism.
# # #
Sadie Elkins sacked out by ten every night like clockwork. The old woman was a creature of habit for sure. Once he identified his first choice for a hideout, the rest of the job sort of fell into place. He just needed to watch and wait until the right moment came.
He had a clear, unobstructed view from his vantage point. The beach was behind the house, but even in the off-season he had to be concerned about stray lovers or beachcombers walking the shoreline at night. He was careful to minimize any movement of the blinds that might reveal his presence.
The residence on the Elkins property sat several hundred yards away from Butler Avenue. Thick foliage obscured sight of the house from the street. The house was really a nice beach shack that practically rubbed up against the sand dunes. It was so far away from the street with heavy brush and trees blocking the view that most passing by on Butler didn’t even notice the house. From the street, it appeared to be an oversized vacant lot.
DeVaughn smiled his approval when Elkins’ lights went out, but he waited. It was still too early to move. He waited for Sadie to reach a deep sleep. Hours passed. The adrenaline rush had worn down and he began to feel fatigue. He feared a concentration lapse or worse yet, dozing off. Someone could sneak up on him if he slept on the job.
When he stood again, he discovered his legs had gone to sleep. Painful pinpricks traversed up and down his legs as sensation returned. He did a couple of deep knee bends to assist the blood circulation to his lower extremities.
He stood on his right foot, lifted his left leg, and shook his foot like a dog trying to shake off bathwater. When he finally put it back down, his left foot felt normal. He reversed his position and repeated the process.
He popped open a small energy drink bottle, draining it in a single gulp. After a few sets of sit-ups and push-ups, DeVaughn’s heartbeat quickened to the rate he needed to keep his adrenaline pumping until time to go to work. When he was done, DeVaughn felt able to sprint if necessary.
It soon might be necessary; you never know.
He resumed watching her house for a few extra moments, waiting and listening for any sound of activity. His natural intuition for trouble was powerful and he trusted it. In this line of work, any mistake was potentially fatal. He did a quick time check—almost 3:00 a.m.
He checked the other houses in eyesight of the front windows. The street was dark and quiet as a church. Any neighbors actually home for the evening were in bed and asleep.
He slipped out the back door and slowly made his way toward the Elkins’ house, staying in the shadows cast by a giant oak tree that partially obscured the view of her house from Butler Avenue. A crescent moon provided dim light, but with the help of the oak tree’s shadow, DeVaughn became invisible. He felt his way along with his feet, unwilling to use a flashlight that could betray his location. He moved slowly, worried a neighbor’s dog might start barking if he made a sound.
DeVaughn memorized the layout of her house during the two week period he had stalked his intended victim. One day he followed her and watched as she left the island in her old Buick. He turned around at Fort Pulaski and quickly drove back to her house as fast as he could get there. It only took a couple of minutes to pick her lock. That was in daylight, not when he was there to kill her. Tonight he would use the key that he made for the occasion.
On his previous visit to the house, DeVaughn had found everything he needed to know inside of twenty minutes. The place was a fire hazard just waiting to go up in flames. A large outdoor propane tank supplied gas to the clothes dryer, her stove, and the water heater. The old lady smoked, so open flames and burning cigarette butts would be easily explained.
Sadie tried painting landscapes, which weren’t bad, though she didn’t paint people very well. She churned out any number of serene beach scenes and simple natural settings. Her most realistic-looking paintings depicted birds and people far off in the distance. The closer she got to her subjects, the more cartoonish their features became.
Her hobby meant she used plenty of solvents and flammable liquids like acetone and mineral spirits, both handy accelerants. On that trip, DeVaughn got lucky and found a spare house key in a kitchen drawer. He used it to make a wax impression before leaving the way he came, careful not to leave any sign he had been there.
More than fifteen minutes passed after leaving his roost before DeVaughn used his new key to enter the old lady’s house. Safely inside, he added his new key to the kitchen drawer alongside the original he had duplicated. Now old Mrs. Elkins had two spare keys. In a few minutes, she’d have no further use for either one.
A night light dimly illuminated the bathroom, so he could more or less see as he retraced the twenty-three paces he counted between the front door and her bedroom.
Lifting the pillow from her late husband’s bed, DeVaughn gently covered her face with it then pressed down firmly, smothering old Mrs. Elkins. She thrashed around for a bit in her bed. It seemed an eternity passed before she stopped struggling. He counted to twenty after her last movement, keeping the pillow firmly pressed over her face in the meantime. Finished, he took a deep breath and relaxed ever so slightly. He tossed the pillow back where he found it on the unused twin bed still in her bedroom, several years after her late husband’s passing. He checked for her pulse and found none.
So far, so good.
DeVaughn found Sadie’s purse and took the pack of Marlboro Lights out from a side pocket, tucking one behind his ear. He tossed the rest of the pack back in her purse.
He took his time in her studio, spreading the accelerants but carefully returning the cans to where he found them. Empty accelerant cans on the floor would scream arson to the crime scene investigators. On the other hand, mostly empty accelerant cans combined with a little judicious spreading of their contents should not raise undue suspicion. He left a couple of bottles partially open or with cap off, freeing flammable vapors to meet his coming ignition source.
DeVaughn didn’t want to just start a fire; he intended to burn the place down completely before the fire department could even react.
He made his way to the laundry room, illuminating his path with his pen flashlight. Located on the other side of the kitchen, the room wasn’t much bigger than a closet. He pulled the dryer away from the wall and used the stubby hammer and the scratch awl to punch a small hole into the gas supply line on the backside. As soon as he smelled gas, he pushed the machine back into place.
The smell of rotten eggs filled the laundry room, a sure sign of a gas leak. Utility companies add the stench to propane and natural gas supplies as a warning to alert their customers and to minimize the danger from leaks. The odorous warning was useless to Mrs. Elkins.
DeVaughn left the laundry room and went in search of an ashtray. He finally found one in the television room, lying on the floor beside her easy chair. When he stepped back into the hallway, he smelled traces of gas filtering into the kitchen. A sense of urgency quickened his pace. He needed to wrap this up.
He lit the cigarette, puffing a few times to make sure it was burning okay. The cigarette would keep burning until hitting the filter or until the gas reached the burning embers. He perched the cigarette in the ashtray and left it in her bedroom before leaving the house.
He turned the lock on the doorknob and pulled the door closed behind him as he left so the firefighters wouldn’t find an unlocked house. He couldn’t turn the deadbolt because he left his duplicate key behind in the kitchen drawer.
Damn. I could have just thrown the key into the ocean.
DeVaughn crossed the yard quickly, sacrificing stealth for speed on the way out. At four in the morning, there would still be few people wandering around Tybee, although those were usually the serious drunks on vacation. He didn’t want to be seen leaving the house, but more importantly, he needed to be as far away as possible when the explosion occurred.
He backed the car out of the garage at his hideout, leaving the engine running and the car parked in the driveway. He ran back inside the house and put the garage door opener back in place. He knew he should get moving, but he stood by the car door to listen and watch for one extra moment.
When the audible whump of the gas igniting roughly fifty yards away carried across the still night, he got in the car and slowly drove away from his crime scene. It required every bit of self-discipline DeVaughn could muster to overcome his urge to flee in haste, but self-discipline was paramount for his survival.
In his rearview mirror, DeVaughn saw a fireball burst above the tree line. As certain as he had been the place would go up in flames, the visual confirmation was a nice bonus on the way home.
DeVaughn stripped off the surgical gloves from his hands and shoved them in a plastic trash bag he kept hanging from the cigarette lighter. He slipped into the parking lot of Chu’s convenience store and tossed the bag into the trash container out by the gas pumps without even getting out of the car. He only slowed down long enough to make sure his trash made it safely into the receptacle.
Once out of the parking lot DeVaughn turned west, heading off the island and back toward Savannah. From the corner of his eye, he saw the first set of flashing lights from a patrol car heading in the direction of the fire. Because the fire station was on Jones Avenue, DeVaughn didn’t get to see the engines scrambling on their short race to the burning house. That was a little disappointing.
But all in all, it was a good night’s work.