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Blownup in Paradise
High-profile murder can be good for business…
“We’re being followed,” Fab said in a hushed tone as we headed down the Overseas Highway from the top of the Keys, her eyes alternating between the road in front of her and the Hummer’s side mirror.
I turned in my seat. “The sports car?”
“The Harley. It’s been moving up, then hanging back, and now it’s almost on my bumper.” Fab pulled her Walther out from under her skirt, where she had it holstered. “Madison, wait,” she exclaimed after a minute. “It’s not us… It’s the Ferrari the Harley is interested in.”
I craned my neck around the back of the driver’s seat, in awe that she could identify the make of a car with a quick glance. “That’s Bordello!” I struggled to keep from shrieking. Now on my knees on the passenger seat, I kept a tight grip on my Glock, which I’d also had holstered under my skirt. “Mostly certain.” I climbed into the back seat to double check.
James Bordello was a man with unsavory family connections, and I’d long suspected that he would stoop to violence to get what he wanted in a business deal but hadn’t been able to prove it. Much to my dismay and despite my attempts to talk my brother out of it, Brad had formed a real estate partnership with the man. To say Brad’s taste in women and business partners was terrible would be an understatement; they were invariably either crazy or criminal. But did he ever listen to his sister? Oh, heck no.
“Don’t look now,” I instructed Fab, which she promptly ignored, turning her head towards the driver’s side window. “You don’t listen very well.”
“What already?” Fab asked in exasperation.
“Bordello just pulled up alongside us. Wonder where he’s going?” I scooted to the middle of the backseat on the off chance that he might see me. Probably not, since I’d chosen the darkest tint I could get for the windows.
“It’s Bordello, all right,” Fab said, her disgust coming through loud and clear. “Judging by the way the Harley is dogging the Ferrari, plus the cannon tucked under that leather jacket, I’d say the rider likely gets a shot off and kills Bordello. Are we getting involved, or am I turning around and heading for my appointment? Your call. Personally, I vote for being do-gooder citizens, but only because I want to know what’s going down.”
“Follow him.” It was probably a bad idea, but like Fab, I wanted to know what was going to happen next. “We have a few extra minutes before we need to hit the Turnpike to make your appointment on time.”
The bike rider hunkered down and sped after the car, remaining a discreet distance behind, not ready to make it known that their only interest on the road was the Ferrari.
“Maybe whoever it is has a good reason to want him dead,” I said, my face almost pressed to the glass.
“I’m a bad influence.” Fab snorted. “That would be my rationale.”
First, the Ferrari changed lanes, pulling in front of us. Next the bike slid in, cutting it close to the bumper and forcing Fab to hit the brakes.
“What’s the plan?” I asked.
“Get back up here,” Fab ordered. “Rider reaches for the gun, I’ll clip the back tire. Hopefully, their speed won’t get back up to what it was because this isn’t without a certain amount of risk. Might scratch up the Hummer.” She patted the dash.
I sighed. The SUV was the coolest car I’d ever owned and an amazingly good deal, and I was tired of taking it to the auto body shop, hoping to get it back in near-new condition.
“Do you think Bordello knows he’s being followed?” I asked, climbing back into the front.
At that exact moment, Bordello pushed hard on the accelerator. The shiny silver sports car took off with a roar, speeding past the Tarpon Cove city limits as he rocketed down the highway heading south.
“He knows now.” Fab eased down on the gas in hot pursuit of the two, but hung back, leaving plenty of room.
The bike accelerated and was about to run up on the car’s back bumper, but several seconds later, the brake lights flashed and the motorcycle skidded, the back wheel swinging around ninety degrees. The rider hit the pavement and rolled, coming to a stop lying face down on the asphalt, not moving. The bike continued its skid, the crunch of the frame as it wrapped around a pole ensuring a mangled mess.
I let out a loud groan.
Fab slowed and pulled to the side of the highway, leaving a couple of car lengths between us and the accident. The two of us jumped out and ran to the rider.
Struggling to move, the rider managed to turn over, grunting and groaning all the while.
“I’m calling 911,” Fab said, just as the sound of screeching tires redirected our attention.
Bordello had also pulled over and now put the Ferrari in reverse, backing up, blowing dust and dirt in our direction, and coming to a squealing stop. He barreled out of the car and raced the few feet to where we were. He did a double take at seeing Fab and I standing on the roadside and glared.
“Don’t touch her,” he bellowed at the two of us.
I stood, having already bent down to offer assistance until an ambulance arrived with the hope that once Fab got an operator on the phone, they’d tell us what to do.
Bordello threw himself down next to the rider, unbuckled the helmet and slipped it off gently, cradling her head in his lap. “I’ll take care of this,” he snapped. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, punched in 911, and reported an “accident,” telling the operator an ambulance was needed. All the while, he ran his hand over her long blonde hair, which had tumbled out and over her shoulders.
The woman blinked several times in an attempt to focus. A long-legged, willowy blonde, her bright blue eyes brimmed with pain as she drifted in and out, her fingers clawing at the dirt. The woman made an effort to sit up, but didn’t get far before Bordello eased her gently against his chest.
“Just relax. Help is on the way,” he said softly.
I wasn’t sure what the heck I was witnessing, and Fab appeared to share my sentiments as we stood rooted on the side of the road. Bordello was practically cooing at the injured woman; the only tones I’d ever heard him use were sarcastic and demanding.
Bordello’s brown eyes, now black pin dots, turned on Fab and me. “If it isn’t Madison Westin and Fabiana Merceau. What the hell are you two doing here? F’ing following me?” he ground out. He’d recovered from his brief brush with being nice and his true self was back—arrogant and full of himself.
“Apparently you know this damsel in distress.” I glanced down at the woman. “Did you know she planned to shoot you?” I cut my eyes to the pavement a few feet away, where the Smith & Wesson lay.
He ignored me, focusing on comforting the woman, murmuring words neither Fab nor I could hear. Fab had the nerve to step closer.
“You two need to get the hell out of here,” he ordered, a snap of his fingers in his tone, along with the expectation that we would obey without question. “I’ll handle this. The only recitation of the facts the cops need to hear is mine.”
“A thank you would be nice,” Fab huffed. “Instead of you comforting your shooter, you could be getting dragged out of your car and bagged off to the coroner about now.”
“I told you to leave. I’m not telling you again.”
Fab’s Walther made its second appearance of the day, and she aimed it between his eyes. “If I don’t, what are you going to do about it?”
I smiled when he flinched, but I grabbed hold of Fab’s arm and gave it a gentle tug. “Next time we see one another, let’s pretend that we’ve never met—ever.” I nudged Fab toward the car.
Bordello’s glaring eyes followed us as we got back in the car.
Fab put the car in gear, and we both watched as Bordello leaned over and picked up the woman’s gun, shoving it down the back of his pants. As Fab pulled out onto the highway, flashing lights could be seen approaching in the distance, and by the time we made a u-turn at the next exit, a cop car and ambulance had pulled into the space we vacated. We slowed for the drivers in front of us, most with their necks craned out the windows to get a glimpse of the accident.
“What just happened?” I asked in sheer confusion as Fab sped by the lookie-loos and back up to the posted speed limit.
“As long as that woman’s face doesn’t appear in the weekly with the word ‘dead’ in the headline, I’m erasing this from my memory.”
“Bordello knows I’d never keep my mouth shut if that happened.”
“I’d sure like to know what that was about. Don’t suppose we’ll ever find out.” Fab handed me her phone. “Call the client and make some excuse to reschedule for tomorrow.”
“You’re the owner of the company; that’s your responsibility.”
“How does a flat tire sound?” I caught her eye roll. “The truth would also sound made up.”
Malibu Hills Murder
When the team goes in, they all come out—or they all go down.
The Zuma Seal Series a spin-off of the characters Zach Lazarro and Slice from the Paradise series.
Anthony “Zach” Lazarro checked the clock on the Escalade’s dashboard. 03:44. He’d been watching the hillside house for almost four hours, and there was still no sign of Lady K. Zach yawned and rubbed his hand over his face, stubble pricking at his fingers. He needed a shave and probably a shower. Stakeouts… the waiting was always the biggest downside of being a private investigator. He powered down the window, hoping for a hint of the salty breeze that blew in off the Pacific Ocean.
If anyone had asked him two years ago if he’d leave his life in the Florida Keys for Los Angeles, he would have laughed and wondered what drugs they were on. But everything had changed, and looking back, it had happened in a blink. When he refused to marry his ex-wife, Lucia, for a second time, she’d whisked his son, Anthony Jr., back to Italy. He’d come to realize, after temporarily reuniting with her, that he didn’t really like her and only wanted to share custody and watch his son grow up. But Lucia had the upper hand, held all the cards. She’d used Zach Jr. against him. Under Italian law, Zach had no rights because his son was an Italian citizen and Zach and Lucia were divorced at the time of his birth. For the first five years of Anthony Jr.’s life, she hadn’t even bothered to mention his existence to Zach, and if she had her way, Zach would never see his son again. He’d warned her that when their son grew up and learned of her machinations, he might very well hate her. She had laughed in his face.
Zach had decided he needed a change and went looking for another warm state to settle in; California won the coin toss. He sold his investigation company in Tarpon Cove, the first small town at the top of the Keys, packed up, and moved west, relocating to Zuma Beach, just north of Malibu. It hadn’t taken long to convince his best friends Slice and Cable, old SEALs buddies that had served in the same military unit, to form Zuma SEALs Investigations. Both were men he trusted with his life. He found he enjoyed the challenge of getting ZSI off the ground; it kept his mind off the things he couldn’t change, and he was extremely satisfied that the company had just started running in the black.
Out of sheer boredom, he picked up the buff file from the passenger seat beside him and flicked through the pages again. The case was no big deal: rich jealous husband suspects beautiful young wife of cheating. Zach took a sheaf of 4×6 glossy color photographs from the back of the file and flicked through them. Slice was their Head of Intelligence, and in addition to handling computer security, he’d signed on as an amateur photographer for the jobs that required taking up-close-and-personal photos for the client. He was a randy bastard; each photograph showed Lady K. in some kind of compromising pose.
The first picture was of her leaning over a shopping cart in one of those trendy fresh-food markets, her low neckline providing an ample view of her plump, firm breasts. In the second, Slice had caught her on the beach, sunbathing stomach-down on a towel. She looked like she’d fallen asleep in the sun, and the bottom half of her bathing suit had ridden up into the crack of her ass, revealing two shapely, snow-white buttocks, a stark contrast to the even, brown tan of the rest of her body. But in the last picture, Slice had outdone himself. It was a shot of Lady K. exiting the back of a sleek, black, stretch limousine—not the easiest maneuver for a long-legged woman in stilettos and a short dress—and Slice had caught an up-skirt close-up that showed her sans panties.
Zach thought it was a nice shot—he approved of women keeping themselves smooth down there—but he made a mental note to talk to Slice about his unprofessional approach. He stuffed the photos back into the folder and tossed it onto the passenger seat. Where the hell was she? The woman was a night owl and nothing had stirred inside the house since he arrived. Slice reported that she had gotten home three hours before his shift ended, went inside, and hadn’t seen her since.
He got out of the car and stretched. It was another hot night in Southern California, and the humid air tonight, an unusual weather occurrence, made the sweat run down the back of his neck and left dark circles under his arms. He checked his watch. Another ten minutes and Cable, his third in command, would arrive to take over the watch; Cable was never late, in fact, he was often early. Usually, Zach did these jobs with his partner, but Slice had promised to pitch a new client over a breakfast meeting; he used every opportunity to schmooze and promote the business. Zach began to think about a hot shower, a cold beer, and a long, well-deserved sleep in a soft bed. And that was when he took his eyes off the ball.
Zach didn’t hear a sound, but he did feel the metal bar slam against the right side of his neck, saw the asphalt rushing up to meet him, and thought, This isn’t going to be pretty. Then he smacked face-first into the street and all his lights went out.
When he opened his eyes again, Cable was looking at him with a grim smile on his face. “So, you’re not dead?”
Zach tried to move, but everything hurt, so he lay still instead and concentrated on breathing and not much else. “Not yet, buddy.”
“The guy was good, huh? Getting the drop on you like that?”
“I’m allowed a bad day. Now, will you help me up or are you going to let me lie here in the street like I’ve been thrown out with the garbage?”
Cable was six-foot-five and weighed over three hundred pounds, about two hundred ninety-nine of which were pure muscle. He could have hoisted Zach up like a rag doll and stuffed him in his pocket, but he chose to be gentle. He slipped his hands under Zach’s armpits and lifted him onto his feet like he was picking a baby up out of a buggy. “Can I let go, or you gonna fall over again?”
It was a fair question, and Zach had to think about it. Eventually, he said, “I’m good, man. Thanks. Let go before people think we’re in love.”
Cable released Zach and dusted down the back of his shirt with hands the size of skillets.
“You missed your vocation, Cable.”
“Yeah, you should have been a valet.”
“I shoulda been a chalet? Gee, thanks Boss, no one has ever said that to me before.”
Zach turned and looked up into Cable’s face. His Native American lineage was clearly visible in the wide forehead and the flair of his nostrils. Of course, that he’d tied his jet-black hair in a ponytail was also a bit of a giveaway. The giant of a man was two-thirds Apache and one-third mystery. But none of that mattered to Zach. All he cared about was that he trusted Cable with his life and that Cable had never let him down.
“How long was I out, big fella?”
“Not long. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes since I got here. I was just starting to get a little worried, but you weren’t bleeding, your heartbeat was strong and steady, and you were breathing regular. I figured an old ex-SEAL like you could go unconscious for twenty. If you hadn’t come around, I’d have called an ambulance and started the mouth to mouth. I was just looking for somewhere to brush my teeth first; I know you hate garlic.” The two men stared at each other, deadpan; neither wanted to be the first to smile. After a moment, Cable continued. “I’ve been thinking, Boss. Whoever this was, they thought it through. End of your watch, start of mine. Perfect timing.”
Zach nodded, but his head still hurt, so he stopped doing that. He touched his face. His nose felt all wrong and a huge bump was growing above his right eye. Luckily, there was little blood. “Yeah, hold onto that thought. Looks like we’re dealing with professionals. Tell me, do I look like shit?
“No worse than usual, Boss.”
“Stop with the compliments already. Any sign of Lady K?”
“Yes and no.” Cable shrugged his enormous shoulders.
Zach raised his eyebrows. “Such decisiveness makes my head hurt.”
“Well, I didn’t have a clear view, but I watched as the lights went on inside the house, and I did see someone moving around in there, we know she comes to this house alone. I figured she made herself a snack, took a shower, and then went to bed.” Cable’s eyes were filled with smug humor, and he waited for Zach to ask.
“Oh come on, Boss, ask me how I know all that.”
“I know how you know all that.”
“Jeez, just once, huh? Ask me already.”
“Okay Sherlock, how do you know all that?”
“Well, first the light went on in her bedroom, and then the light goes on on the back patio, I raced to get around the side of the house, but by that time the light goes out, there’s the light on the stairs, so she’s going back to bed, right? But she’s not; well, she is, but not right away. See, the light goes on in the bathroom for a while, then off again, and then the light in the bedroom goes on and off again a minute later,” Cable finished, slightly out of breath but looking pleased with himself.
“So by tracking the sequence of lights, you were able to follow her progress through the house?”
Cable’s smile slowly vanished. “I guess you could say it like that.”
“I just did.” There was a pause, and Zach looked across the street towards the house. “How did you know it was Lady K.?”
“The person you saw in the house, did you get a positive ID?”
“It’s her house, Boss; Lady K. lives there. It’s gotta be her.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But let’s say it is our girl. Everything about tonight has been atypical of her schedule. First the drapes are closed. Then she’s outside— doing what in the middle of the night? Did you see any other cars? Tonight could be a first for bringing someone home.” Something about this night didn’t feel right; his hunches never failed him. Had Lady K spotted them and given them the slip?
“Did you go take a look?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, why the hell not, Cable?”
“Because I was making sure you were still alive.”
Zach stopped talking and looked down at his shoes. Then he took a deep breath, looked back up into Cable’s face, and smiled. “I’m glad you did, old buddy. Let’s go check on her now, shall we?”
The two men crossed the street and walked up the steep incline that was the driveway to Lady K.’s palatial house. It was true that the place belonged to her, but when Cable said she lived there, he was not being entirely accurate. This was just one of the three houses she had dotted around California.
Her marital home, the one she shared with her husband, was an enormous, pompous mansion in Beverly Hills, but as far as Zach could tell, she didn’t seem to spend much time there. He kept thinking that that fact should be telling him something about the case, but as of yet, Zach was still missing the light bulb moment. Houses seemed to be a hobby of Lady K.’s. She collected them like other people collected antique furniture or garden gnomes. Which meant that keeping tabs on her was a giant pain in the butt. Zach had had Slice set up surveillance cameras at all three locations, front and back, which enabled them to keep a log of her comings and goings, and yet it didn’t help one bit to track where she went, who she was meeting, or what she was doing.
It was a manpower problem. Zach didn’t have the men to put a 24/7 tail on the lady. But what his company lacked in resources, they made up for in ingenuity and dedication to the job. At least, that was what Zach told his potential clients. In reality, it meant a lot of legwork, a lot of overtime, and a lot of hours sitting in cars, drinking cold coffee, and smelling of sweat. Not to mention the chronic lack of sleep. But he thrived on it. He had the money to pour into the business, but it was important to him that it became a well-respected company that made a profit and stood on its own. After the first few cases were successful, the recommendations had rolled in and calls for jobs were now steadily growing.
This one had taxed their manpower and skills and made him realize that he’d need to hire another field contractor. Lady K flitted from house to house with all the consistency of a butterfly. With one exception. This was the house that she came to every Thursday after her regular singing lessons at The Malibu Hills Music Academy. It kind of made sense, Zach thought. The school was nearby, and she never missed a lesson. It seemed that Lady K fancied herself the next singing sensation, but Slice had managed to record a few minutes from one of her sessions, and Zach would not have advised that she give up her day job just yet.
Not that she had one. Lady K.’s husband was filthy rich, and if she played the good little wife, she’d never have to work another day in her life. Which was another reason for Zach to question her motives. Lady K. already had everything a woman could ever need; why the hell would she be sneaking around? Zach hadn’t figured out the rhyme and reason of it all yet, but he was working on it.
He and Cable circled around to the back of the house and crossed the lawn to the patio doors. The full moon glistened off the still surface of a kidney-shaped swimming pool large enough to drown a whale; flickering lights rimming the side.
Zach tried the door, and it slid open with a quiet, well-oiled hissing sound. The kind of noise a faerie would make when she farted.
He motioned for Cable to go inside. Despite his size, the Apache could move as silently as a cloud; if anyone could sneak through a house without making one single sound, it was Cable. Zach waited at the patio doors and watched as the big man moved silently through the living room and then seemed to float upstairs like a ghost. Three minutes, Zach thought, looking at his watch.
Three minutes was the maximum amount of time a Special Forces Operative was allowed when checking out an unknown situation alone. If the operative hadn’t returned or somehow signaled they were okay by the time three minutes were up, the support team would go in after them. No exceptions, and no one ever got left behind.
There were many aspects of their military training and experience that Zach’s team had adapted to fit their roles as civilian investigators—most of them had become habit anyway—but the three-minute rule was set in stone. No one ever got left on their own for longer than that. Exactly two minutes and fifty-seven seconds later, Cable was back, and from the look in his eyes, Zach could tell that something had gone wrong.
“I think you’d better come and have a look at this, Boss.”
“Is she not here?” Zach asked, wondering how he could bill the client when they’d let the subject steal away right under their noses. And how would he explain it without sounding like a newbie on his first job?
“Oh, she’s here all right. She’s also dead.”
Christmas in Paradise
It wouldn’t be Christmas in Tarpon Cove without a crime to solve.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells…” Santa encouraged the well-dressed older women lined up, ready to sit in his lap, to sing off-key at the top of their lungs. It was clear that it wasn’t shopping that brought the women to the only outdoor mall in Tarpon Cove, the lot of them decked out in huge smiles, blowing kisses. A couple of them I recognized as “friends” of Crum’s.
Santa waved his arms, encouraging their raucous behavior. At the end of the song, he clapped and bowed, which left the women giggling like schoolgirls.
The ill-fitting suit in the corner, who had mall management written all over him, stomped over, steam practically rising from his head.
Whatever tirade he was about to unleash came to an abrupt halt when the twenty-five-foot Christmas tree rocked side to side, toppling over and partially covering Santa’s gingerbread house, which the mall had built for the big man’s “family” and used for processing the pictures of the children who sat on Santa’s lap. Large ornaments crashed to the ground, sending shards of glass flying.
From where I was standing, I could see that Mrs. Claus had awoken from her drunken stupor and stumbled into the tree… and by whatever miracle escaped going down with it. She covered her dismay at the crunching under her feet with a giggle and lurched over to Santa’s throne, making herself comfortable and hiking up her skirt, mumbling, “Damn dress.”
A few of the women in line screamed, jumping back. Two of them attempted to squeeze under the velvet rope. To jump into Santa’s arms? That turned out to be a bad idea – one’s bouffant got stuck on the stand and brought the barricade tumbling down on their backs. They lay in a heap, arguing over whose fault it was that they were sprawled on the ground.
The handful of children in line started crying. Too much adult drama.
“Fabiana Merceau, get back over here,” I hissed at my partner, who was trying to slink off into a shoe store located temptingly close. If I was going to have a headache, then so was she. That’s what best friends did – they shared.
Fab stomped over to my side, arms crossed. “Madison Westin,” she mimicked. “Crum had the nerve to suggest that I be one of Santa’s elves. The costume is threadbare, ugly, and it smells. And even if it were brand new, I wouldn’t do it.” She added, “No way!”
It took everything I had not to burst out laughing. We had been drinking eggnog lattes at our favorite bakery when I got a frantic call from Santa.
“Everything’s gone south on me,” Crum, the shopping center’s newest Santa, had huffed. “The missus passed out. One elf didn’t show. I really need your help. Get over here as quick as you can.”
I’d managed to hold back a loud snort, but just barely. “What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked before realizing he’d hung up.
I hadn’t bothered to fill Fab in on what was happening, being deliberately vague because I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance of her setting one of her designer shoes into the middle of this mess if she knew about it in advance, especially if she found out it had anything to do with Crum. At least, not without intense blackmail.
Professor Crum resided at The Cottages, a beachfront property that I owned. He loved women and drama and always had some unsuitable moneymaking scheme up his sleeve. I’d almost laughed when he told me he’d gotten the Santa job, thinking uncharitably that no one else must have applied.
Fab and I had arrived just in time to snag a good vantage point where we could see the drama unfold and overhear every word.
The mall suit jerked Crum by the arm, trying to drag him off to one side, but Santa dug in his boots, slowing their progress. “I let you choose your own helpers, and what a disaster that’s turned out to be.” The man’s anger vibrated through his body. “The only reason you’re not fired on the spot is that I can’t get a replacement here today. Now you listen to me – if you need this job as much as you say you do, get your act together and now.”
The old “poor mouth” routine. Crum demonstrated all the eccentricities of a bag person but was far from one. He was a retired college professor with a healthy pension.
“I’ll take care of everything,” Crum reassured the man. He turned, rolling his eyes, caught sight of me, and almost tripped over his feet getting to me before I could duck out.
I’d put money on his idea of taking care of the problem being throwing a hissy fit or walking off the job in a huff. The only thing stopping him was all the people around, who would laugh about it for the next decade.
The man stopped in front of me, out of breath, his agitation at an all-time high. “Get Miss January out of here,” Crum said to me in a mini-panic. “Then hurry back.” He ran his eyes over me. “You’ll fit in the dress.” At my puzzled expression, he said, “Think of the children.” He glared at Fab, who’d started laughing. “Fab doesn’t give a damn about the kiddies and their happiness. Besides, she’s too fat for the dress.”
As funny as I thought that was, I bit back my laughter. I knew my friend didn’t have an ounce of fat on her and was in kick-butt shape. Spinning around, I grabbed her wrist and cautioned, “Do not shoot him.” When Fab’s glare calmed to a simmer, I dropped her hand and turned back to Crum. “If you value your body parts in their current location, I suggest you curtail your comments.”
The tops of his cheeks, which showed above the bedraggled beard, turned bright red. He scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot, mumbling incoherently.
What the man wanted finally sank in. “You expect me to be Mrs. Claus?” Time for Plan B. I had no intention of being sucked in by his sentimental drivel. “I don’t need your high IQ to figure out that, since this entire area is a mess, you’ll be closing the gingerbread house for the day. Unless management moves your location, which is probably not doable. But either way, they need to get everything cleaned up. I suggest that you get your ho-ho-ho on and go over and schmooze the kids, making this an experience to remember as opposed to a disaster.” Being a fan of the big man myself – the traditional version anyway – I frowned at the thought of the kids not having fun. “Not even one glance at your fan club,” I scolded. “Those hussies need to go shopping, which will please the management.”
My very first job had been as a Santa’s helper. He’d been a drunken lech. Every day, me and Mrs. Claus laughed at his jokes, even though I didn’t understand most of them. I never confided in Mother, instinctively knowing that the job would come to an abrupt end if I did.
The mall manager—whose nametag read Jared Greg—was back, a maintenance man by his side. “You’re fired.” He glared at Crum. “We’re closing Santa’s village.”
“Wait,” I interjected. “This situation is salvageable. When are you planning to reopen?”
“Who are you?” Jared snapped.
“A friend.” I nodded in Crum’s direction.
“That’s not much of a reference.”
“I can get replacements here so you can re-open this afternoon. That’s if you do your part and get this cleaned or moved – whatever. You might want to rethink firing Santa, though. Him, I can’t replace, and it was his idea to salvage the experience for the children.” I tried to shove Crum forward, but he once again dug in his worn boots, trimmed in fur that looked suspiciously like cotton balls glued together.
I’d heard he had to supply his own shoes, and from a brief glance, it appeared they were a major score from a dumpster. The man loved his unusual hobby, told me once that dumpster diving calmed his nerves after a stressful day. It would have been a good story if I hadn’t known he made his rounds in the early morning hours on trash day.
Crum stepped forward and spoke to the manager, selling my idea with enthusiasm, excitement in his voice, his arms waving. He had storytelling down to an art.
Jared clapped him on the shoulder. “You get these women to go shopping, spend some money, and you’re rehired.” He practically salivated at visions of dollar signs. “Get your butt over there, take pictures with the children, and get them thinking about sugar plums and fairies. You better not mention coal again, no matter what you think of the kid.”
“Can’t you ever mind your own business?” Fab asked from behind me.
I turned and mouthed, “Holiday spirit.”
“Forgot who I was talking to for a minute,” Fab said with melodrama. “In case you thought of asking, I’m not taking on extra work at this time.”
I fished my phone out of my pocket and walked away, knowing that would annoy her. “Need your help,” I said when my property manager, Mac, answered the phone. I went on to tell her the events of the morning.
Mac Lane managed The Cottages. I’d hired her to corral the guests and long-term tenants and keep them out of trouble. To say she’d worked out well was an understatement. Another of her great attributes was she never said no.
“I wondered how long Crum would last,” Mac said. “Should have tried to hustle up a few side bets. Probably wouldn’t have gotten any takers.”
“I need a Mrs. Claus and an elf. No drunks… or only the ones that can hold off until they get off work.” The Cove being a small touristy town, the shops closed at six unless there was a big event. “Bonus in it for you if I can make this your problem and not mine.”
“I suppose you want me to start now, once again without the notice a reasonable person gives?” Mac sniffed.
“If you weren’t such a superstar at problem-handling, you wouldn’t be my first call.”
“Flattery. Love it.” Mac laughed. “I’ll be the missus until I can get a replacement, and I’ll bring Joseph along with me. He’s not ideal, but I can boss him around easy enough.”
I winced at the thought of Joseph being involved. “Maybe… look for someone to replace him also. I’ll make it clear to Crum that you’re top dog—you call the shots, and he better damn well listen.”
“I’m going to enjoy every minute of this job.” A smile was evident in her voice. “What about Miss January?”
“Since Fab probably won’t let her sit in the SUV, we’ll tie her to the roof and bring her home.”
Both Miss January and Joseph were tenants inherited with the property. Of the two, Joseph managed to stay sober at least half the day while Miss January could only manage a few hours.
Fab banged her head on my shoulder. When I walked off, she’d followed and gotten close enough to listen to both sides of the conversation without me having to use the speaker. I’d say it was shocking behavior, but it wasn’t. The woman couldn’t stand to be left out of anything, and it never mattered that she said she wasn’t the least bit interested.
“I’ll be there in a half-hour, assuming Joseph is dressed.”
I flinched, not wanting that image to take hold. I put my phone away, and me and my shadow headed straight over to Crum. “Mac’s got this handled. Don’t upset her in any way,” I told him, adding a finger jab. “Just a reminder: you owe me big… huge, in fact.”
“I knew if I called you, you’d help. Anyone else would hang up on me.” Crum had mustered up a pitiful tone. “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had. My only one, really.”
I felt a poke in my back. Not wanting to ruin this greeting card moment, I said, “Hmm…” Doing my best to make it sound like an appropriate response. I waved him off to the children, who were anxiously awaiting his return. Now that the female hangers-on had been cleared out, the line was down to a manageable dozen.
“Ready?” I asked Fab.
“Finally. I have a great idea.”
Probably not, judging by the cagey look on her face, but I didn’t say anything.
“We’ll send Miss January home in a cab and be there to pick her up.”
~ ~ ~
Fab grumbled about our next task until I couldn’t take it anymore and gave her one of Mother’s “you better behave” stares. We found Miss January passed out in the last place we’d seen her, no one apparently wanting to wake the snoring woman. I came close to threatening Fab with bodily harm before she finally relented and we each took an arm and hauled the woman up and off Santa’s throne, guiding her down a long hallway to the dressing room. There, Fab sliced her finger through the air, letting me know she wasn’t having any part of the next stage of the plan.
I helped Miss January out of her costume, hanging the skirt, blouse, and jacket up for Mac to wear. The tag read, “one size fits all,” but without the belt, the dress would’ve swallowed up the woman. On Mac, it would create a totally different look—the next Mrs. Claus would be all womanly curves.
I’m not sure who’d thought it was a good idea to talk Miss January into doing this gig. Being a betting woman, my dollar was on Crum having no other options and running out of time. The diminutive grey-haired woman drank and smoked from the moment her head rolled off the pillow. How she managed to control her nicotine habit, sometimes for hours at a time, had amazed me. Then one day, I found nicotine gum in her pocket. She’d opened one eye and mumbled, “Almost choked,” and pointed at the package. I threw it away and fished through her pockets, getting rid of the rest.
Getting her dressed was a lot easier, only requiring that I slide her muumuu over her head and shove her feet into a pair of slippers. At that point, I needed Fab’s help to get her out of the building and into the car. Without her help, Miss January and I would both end up in a heap in the middle of the parking lot. I snapped my fingers in frustration, pointing for Fab to once again grab an arm.
On the way out, I grabbed a trash bag off a janitor’s cart, fairly sure the woman wouldn’t get sick but just covering my bases.
Fab eyed the bag and snapped, “What if she misses the bag?”
“I’ll call the crime scene cleaner guy. He can get dead smell out of a house; sick smell out of a car ought to be easy-peasy.” I ignored her death stare. “We’ll put the seats down, shove her in the back, and I’ll sit with her. The rubber mats back there are expendable.” If you didn’t know how our relationship worked, you’d think my SUV belonged to Fab, as I rarely got to drive it.
I’d finally gotten my Hummer back after its long stay at the auto body shop. Most of my relatives had noticed its disappearance from the driveway and suggested that, had I used the family business for the repairs, I’d have gotten it back long ago. But then everyone would know I’d lied when I passed off the “minor damage” as the result of a little fender bender, minimizing the details of the incident that had left the SUV totaled and me using the insurance check to get it fixed. Every time I walked by it, I scrutinized it for damage and couldn’t find any. It had even passed Fab’s white-glove inspection.
It took both Fab and I to heave Miss January into the back. She drifted in and out of her stupor, barely noticing her change in surroundings. I climbed in next to her, trash bag in hand.
For once, Fab didn’t drive like a crazy woman, dodging and weaving in traffic. She still managed to make it to The Cottages in record time, and pulled into the driveway of the U-shaped ten-unit beachfront property with no additional drama.
I pushed open the back door and grabbed hold of Miss January’s legs, pulling her to the edge, sitting her up, and placing her feet on the ground. The door of her cottage slammed opened. Her boyfriend stood on the top step, staring, as though trying to figure out was happening. What was his name again? I was getting as bad as Fab. In my defense, he kept a low profile.
They were an unlikely couple, looking like grandmother and grandson when they were actually close to the same age. Miss January was a good example of hard living taking its toll.
“What happened?” he asked, concern in his voice.
“Drunk on the job. She got fired,” I said.
“I knew it was bad idea, but she was so excited.” He scooped her up and carried her into the cottage, kicking the door closed.
“Thank you to you too,” I yelled after him and flounced back to the car.
“I…” Fab said as she slid behind the wheel, then appeared stuck as to what to say next.
I waved my hand. “I’m mostly certain that whatever it is that is about to come out of your mouth isn’t the least bit holiday-ish, and I won’t stand for it.” I gave her a demented stare, trying to cross my eyes, which I wasn’t very good at. Probably a good thing.
I flipped on the radio. Jingle Bells blared out of the speakers, and we both laughed.
~ ~ ~
Ambushed in Paradise
Sneak Peek of Chapter One
The man’s voice continued, “Shot in the line of duty.”
“Nooo…” I heard a woman scream.
Was it me? I couldn’t be sure. The world went dark.
The first time I laid eyes on Creole, he came up the driveway at The Cottages, lean and lethal, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail. Too bad he didn’t stay around long enough to exchange a word of conversation.
“Creole,” I murmured.
He pushed me up against the wall and kicked the front door closed. Tracing a trail with the tip of his tongue down my chin, down my neck, nibbling lightly, sending shivers through my body. Our first kiss. Taking me by surprise, he backed me against the door, pushing my hands above my head, holding them in place while devouring my lips.
I threw my hands out, struggling to ward off… what exactly?
* * *
In the early afternoon, dark clouds had rolled in, bringing a noisy, pounding storm that covered the town of Tarpon Cove at the top of the Florida Keys in fat water drops that beat against the roofs and windows. At one point, the clouds were so low, I was certain I could reach up and touch them, just to see how full they were. Eventually, the rain rolled out over the Gulf, leaving rising temperatures and a taste of humidity hanging in the air.
I glanced sideways as Fabiana Merceau, my best friend and roommate, wiggled out of the house in a black string bikini, setting a tray of drinks at the end of the patio table.
“Stay down there.” I pointed and put the finishing touches on the table settings for four.
The two of us had planned a dinner for our boyfriends—our favorite Mexican foods—and I’d picked up an assortment of beers for the guys.
“We could eat off paper plates.” Fab smirked, handing me a margarita.
“And deprive me of the chance to drag out my collection of dishes? I don’t think so.” I’d chosen the mismatched Fiestaware in assorted beachy colors for tonight’s dinner.
I had inherited the two-story Key West-style house from my aunt Elizabeth. One of my biggest projects had been turning the outdoor patio space that overlooked the pool into an entertainment area for family and friends. Any excuse to eat outside.
Fab clinked the edge of her martini glass against mine. “To friends.”
“You’re up to something.” I narrowed my eyes in an intense stare meant to suck the information out of her brain without having to ask.
“I hate it when you do that. Stop it.” Her lips quirked, so I knew she was on the verge of laughter.
“Cherie.” Didier appeared in the French doors that separated the patio from the living room.
Fab’s boyfriend—Didier, just the one name—was tall, dark, and deliciously naughty. He’d charmed the entire family and was the love of Fab’s life, and he felt the same way. He was also a roommate; the three of us made it work, as we often kept different hours.
Both Fab and I looked up.
He looked straight at me. “Help is coming up the driveway.”
The undercover detective’s name was supposedly Stephan, although Fab and I had never been able to verify that; his attitude about it was “mind your own business.” The moniker of “Help” was one that Fab and I had given him.
Right on cue, the doorbell rang.
“What does that cretin want?” Fab turned up her nose.
“Fabiana,” Didier chastised.
I pushed off the side of the table.
“Stop at the junk drawer and grab your Beretta,” Fab called out.
I shook my head and hurried through the house, opening the door.
“You should be asking who’s there before opening the door,” Help grumped. He appeared disheveled and worn around the edges, as though it had been a tiring few days.
“I already knew it was you.” I motioned. “Come in.”
“Do you mind if we talk out here?” He led me a foot away from the entry, stopping in front of my latest acquisition, a two-tone pink hibiscus.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” he said with a solemn air.
I zeroed in on his face, his words filling me with dread, nausea creeping into my stomach. I couldn’t bring myself to snap, “get to the point.” Instead, I stared.
* * *
“Madison Westin, open your damn eyes!” a familiar voice yelled.
I tried to jerk away from a foul odor, but to no avail; the last thing I expected to see was Fab leaning over me, waving a small bottle, her troubled eyes expecting something from me. I didn’t have the energy to ask what.
It took me a moment to realize that I was lying on the daybed. How did I get here? Was I out cold?
Fab threw her arms around me, hugging me tight. “Thank God.”
“What happened?” I tried to shove a pillow under my head. I vaguely remembered the last thing that happened… words… dead and shot. Then understanding… Creole wasn’t going to walk through the door and hold me in his lap and kiss me ever again.
I rolled onto my side, tears coursed down my cheeks. “He promised,” I sobbed. “He promised.”
It was early morning. Creole picked his jeans up off the floor, whispering, “I’ll be back in a couple of days. You behave yourself.” He leaned down and brushed my lips with his.
“No getting hurt,” he promised.
We hooked pinkies.
He zipped up his pants, wiggling his hips, then sat on the bed and pulled me into his arms and kissed me, a kiss that was rough and sweet and possessive. A hungry kiss. It lasted longer than usual, and when his lips pulled away, I moaned.
“Where’s Creole?” I wiped furiously at my face. Fab helped me to a sitting position. “I need to go to him.”
Help stood on the other side of the room. He fidgeted from one foot to the other, briefly making eye contact. “The funeral’s tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I shook my head, certain I hadn’t heard correctly. “That’s not possible.” Water dripped off the end of my nose. “Why wasn’t I called to handle the arrangements?”
“You’re not his wife or a blood relative. Since Creole didn’t have a next of kin, the department made the arrangements. He was cremated,” Help said to the floor.
Didier crossed the room, sitting down and putting his arm around me. Fab sat on the other side, handing me a tissue.
“Where the hell is the chief?” Didier growled. “Why didn’t he show up for the notification? Do you think this is the way Creole would’ve wanted the woman he loved to find out about his death?”
The Chief of Police in Miami was Creole’s boss and a friend to both of us.
“I don’t know all the details,” Help said, an inscrutable expression on his face. “Three days ago, Creole’s cover was blown. His partner’s too. A shootout ensued, and they both died at the scene.”
“Three days!” Fab shrieked.
“What took so long?” Didier asked. “I’m surprised you showed at all. You draw the short straw?”
“I volunteered.” Help shot Didier a withering glare, but no one believed him. “I thought it would be better coming from someone Madison knows.”
I sniffed and blew my nose, head pounding. My mind filled with thoughts of what Creole would want done. Anger seeped in. I’d rather have heard the news from a stranger. “Creole’s murderer… arrested? Dead? That would be better.”
“This case is being kept under wraps, need-to-know basis, and I’m not on that list,” Help said.
“Where’s the funeral? The time?” I hugged myself for comfort. “I can get there early and take care of any last-minute details.”
“Don’t have the information on me.” Help had one eye on the door, taking a step in that direction. “I’ll… uh… call you.”
“You get the damn information,” Fab exploded. “It better be tonight.”
Didier nodded in agreement.
“I loved him beyond reason,” I whispered, mostly to myself. Tears filled my eyes again; I couldn’t hold them back and didn’t try very hard to keep them from streaming down my face. “I want the funeral information before you step foot off my property,” I choked out, then gulped in some air and continued. “Screw me, and I’ll make the biggest scene at Miami PD headquarters that they’ve ever seen. They can arrest me; I’ll go to court, demand a jury trial, and invite the media.”
I scooted into the space Fab had vacated and curled up in a ball as she followed Help out the door. She wouldn’t let him out of her sight until she got the information. My hundred-year-old, long-haired black cat, Jazz, jumped up next to me. I laid my head on his side. “Dead.” The tears came in a torrent.
* * *