The Admiral's Mark (Short Story) by Steve Berry
EIGHT YEARS AGO
Cotton Malone hated funerals. The only thing worse was a wedding. Both events involved an expected display of emotion, and both sparked memories better left forgotten. He’d attended only a handful of either since leaving the navy six years before and working full-time for the Justice Department. Today’s funeral was further complicated by the fact that he hadn’t particularly liked the man in the coffin.
Scott Brown had been married to Ginger, his wife, Pam’s, sister. Scott had never held a real job, was always pitching some risky venture to investors, most of the schemes borderline illegal. Two years ago Malone had to intercede with Texas authorities and smooth over one that involved a few hundred thousand dollars and a lot of angry ranchers. Luckily, Scott still had the money and its return made everything go away.
This time things had turned out different.
Scott Brown was dead.
Killed in a diving accident off the coast of Haiti. What he was doing there was anybody’s guess. Haitian officials could not have cared less. They fished him from the Caribbean, labeled the death accidental, and shipped him home for burial.
One less problem they had to worry about.
One more for Malone.
“You have to go to Haiti,” his wife said to him. “Ginger is devastated.”
Pam’s sister was two years younger, ten years less mature, and liked the bad boys. Scott was her third husband. Of the crop, he was probably the cream, which wasn’t saying much. Handsome, he’d been a talkative soul, never met a stranger, which had certainly helped with his cons. His problem came from not knowing, to quote the song, “when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to walk away.” He just couldn’t resist the lure of an easy buck. Thankfully, there were no children of the union, and Ginger worked a solid job that paid the bills.
“And why do I have to go to Haiti?” he asked. “Scott drowned. Case closed.”
A report had accompanied the body. It explained everything the locals knew—which wasn’t much—and was signed by a police inspector in Cap-Ha?tien.
“Scott called Ginger a day before he died. He sounded like he was in trouble. He said people were after him.”
“He’s a pathological liar, and he was always in trouble.”
He spotted the look on her face. The one that said, You can argue all you want, but you’re going down there to see what happened. So he decided to try, “I’m off for the next week. I thought you wanted me home to spend more time with you and Gary?”
His son was eight and growing up fast. First the navy had kept him away, now it was his job with the Magellan Billet. He’d missed most of Gary’s childhood, a sore spot between him and Pam.
Their marriage was in trouble. And they both knew it.
“I want you to do this,” she said, her voice calm. “It’ll help Ginger get over him.”
“What am I looking for?”
“How would I know? You’re the secret agent. Find out what happened to him.”
There was no sense arguing any further. When Pam made up her mind, that was it.
The graveside service was ending, the few who’d attended paying their respects to Ginger.
“I should check out their apartment,” he said.
The Browns lived on Atlanta’s south side.
“I doubt your sister has been totally honest about what her husband was involved in. She knows how we feel.”
Pam handed him a key from her purse. “I’ve lived with an agent long enough to know the drill. Go, while everyone is at our house after the funeral.”
He was beginning to wonder how much planning she’d invested in this.
“I love my sister,” she said. “But she’s blind when it comes to men. There’s no telling what’s going on.”
He found the apartment complex just off the interstate, one of hundreds that dotted the Atlanta metropolitan area. No gate barred access and the parking lot was devoid of cars, most of the residents at work on a Tuesday afternoon. The Browns lived on the second floor, and he used the key to gain access. Inside was spotless, everything in its place. Ginger, like her sister, appreciated order. Interesting how she waived that rule when it came to her love life. He’d visited here only a couple of times, as usually the Browns came to the Malone house on the other side of town.
He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but found a checkbook in a drawer, the account only in Ginger’s name, with $4,200 on deposit. A savings book showed another $14,000. Good to know that his sister-in-law kept some money under her control.
A stack of mail caught his attention.
Then someone knocked on the door.
Which startled him.
He hadn’t locked the knob after he’d entered. Why would he? Nobody was around. Family and friends were at the funeral.
The knob began to turn.
He retreated to the bedroom and slid under the bed. A frilly dust ruffle draped down on three sides and provided cover. He wasn’t sure why hiding was necessary, but something didn’t ring right.
“Is anyone home?” a male voice said.
A moment of silence.
“Check the rooms.”
A gap of about half an inch provided a line of sight past the dust ruffle out into the bedroom. He pressed his cheek into the carpet and watched as two feet stepped to the bedroom door, hesitated a moment, then walked to the bathroom and closet, checking both.
“No one is here,” another male voice said.
“They are still at the funeral, so we have some time. Make a search.”
If so, apparently not an ordinary one.
He heard drawers open, items shuffled about.
“No need to look any further,” the first voice said. “Here is what we want.”