Margaritas, mangroves, murder. Just another day at the office.
Honk! The infuriating woman laid on the horn.
I slid into a pair of flip-flops and hustled out of the house, my annoyance cooling when I laid eyes on my friend’s hand, wrapped in something white, resting on the steering wheel.
Fab had called only minutes ago.
“I have an emergency. Will you come with me? I’m sitting out front.”
“Are you okay?” I grabbed my bag.
“I’ll drive,” I yelled.
Fab shook her head and motioned me over to the passenger side of the Hummer, which I owned but seldom got to drive.
I hopped in and asked, “What happened?” as Fab sped out of the compound, my new nickname for the street we lived on. After purchasing the block as a wedding gift for his only daughter, Fab’s father had had twelve-foot-high fencing installed and added a security gate at the entrance.
“Well…” she started, then paused, tapping her finger on the steering wheel as she waited for the gate to open, and sped out.
Fab’s hesitance to answer had me squinting at her and wondering what she was up to. “You missed the turn to the hospital.”
“I lied.” Fab whipped the pillowcase off.
I stared, first at her, then her uninjured hand, then back at her.
Fab hit the gas as though I’d jump out, hightailed it to the main highway, and turned north.
I turned to the passenger window, oblivious to the scenery passing outside the vehicle, and silently counted, one… two… and snapped my head around. “What the heck are you up to?” I didn’t want to know, but since I was trapped in my car, with her in control of our destination, I’d better suck it up and find out. In the back of my mind, I contemplated jumping out at the next signal.
“Really, Madison.” Fab rubbed her ear. “It’s your fault that I had to resort to such sneakiness to get you out of the house. You need to snap out of your honeymoon hangover. Our husbands are up to something, and we’re going to find out what it is.”
My husband. I smiled. Creole, aka Luc Baptiste, had kept his undercover name after retiring early from the police force. Getting caught in a shootout and the months of rehab that followed had been the major factor in his decision. However, not being a cop anymore had no effect on his observational skills. At some point, he was going to pick up the tail in his rearview mirror and notice that his wife’s car was following him. Although Fab was doing a good job of hanging back, shielding herself by using other cars for cover.
I leaned my head back against the seat. “Whatever you’re up to is going to get us in so much trouble.”
“Us?” Fab sniffed. “What about them? If Didier had just been upfront, instead of being so evasive, we’d be headed to the office instead.” She squealed the tires as soon as the signal turned green.
Didier—also one-named since his days as a highly sought-after model—had since retired and was now on his way to becoming a real estate mogul.
No, I wanted to tell her, I’d be checking on my other business interests. I’d stayed in touch via email since I got back from my honeymoon, but it wasn’t the same as visiting in person. It was harder for my employees to cover up their shiftiness when I was standing in front of them.
“I didn’t notice any difference in Creole this morning,” I said. “Has it occurred to you that your husband could be chasing a real estate deal? Since the two of them are partners, it makes sense for them to check it out together.”
We bypassed the cutoff to Highway One, which meant we weren’t headed to Homestead or Miami, and veered off on a two-lane highway that boasted mangrove forests on both sides of the road. The shallow waters attracted large flocks of migratory birds and the occasional alligator, if the sign with the snapping jaws was any indication.
“Why can’t they be upfront?” Fab countered.
Creole’s truck had hit all the lights green and was now so far up the road that the bumper was a faint dot. Reading my mind, Fab kicked the Hummer into high gear and sped after them to close the distance.
“I don’t know. And guess what? I’m willing to wait until they get home to ask. I suggest that we turn around,” I said, knowing full well that my voice of reason would go unheeded.
There was nothing out on this road except wildlife; a handful of manses hidden by trees, their rooflines barely visible; people living off the grid; and one restaurant. I’d read where most of the off-gridders had been run off by law enforcement due to pesky ownership issues but had just moved back once the headlines from the sweeps died down.
“Damn.” Fab pounded her fist on the steering wheel.
She’d lost them shortly after they made a right somewhere in the distance but would never admit it, expecting to find a driveway that never materialized. I predicted that they’d turn up behind us, flagging us down for an explanation. I’d be leaving that bit of unpleasantness to Fab.
Fab slowed and scoped out the sides of the road. Finding a gravel turn-in, she took it, hitting a pothole and rolling down the dirt track onto a flat piece of land that had been cleared and had an unobstructed view of an inlet of water off Card Sound. A small red box house on wheels was parked to the right, nestled under tall trees and surrounded by a chicken wire fence that set off a pitiful-looking yard. A skinny white-haired woman in her sixties or seventies with a weather-lined face, decked out in jean overalls and rubber boots, leaned against the side of a pickup that had seen better days.
“I’m going to ask her a few questions.” Fab parked and got out.
The woman’s eyes glittered as she checked out Fab from head to toe. A sinister smile started to take form and disappeared in a blink.
Bad sign—my neck hair suddenly stood on end. I sighed and got out. Fab and I were both armed, with weapons holstered at the middle of our backs. I’d been embarrassed at leaving the house in crop sweats and a long-sleeved t-shirt, but brushed aside the idea of changing in the face of an emergency and was now happy that I had. My knockabout clothes offered protection from the mosquitos and other unidentified flying insects.
“Look, two new friends,” the woman said gleefully and waved. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a redhead.” Her dark, pin-dot eyes zeroed in on me.
“Would you mind answering a couple of questions so we can get back on the road?” Fab asked, the picture of sweetness, a damsel in distress.
“Come in.” The woman motioned to the red house. “I love company. Can never get enough.” She cackled.
It was a disturbing sound. I grabbed the back of Fab’s top and slowed down her progress in closing the distance between her and the woman, in case she was of the mindset to take the woman up on her invitation.
Crazy alert. I’ve had plenty of experience and was definitely looking at it on display.
“That’s nice of you, but we need to get back on the road,” I said.
That didn’t set well. The woman scowled, as if to say ‘who asked you?’
“It’s beautiful back here.” I smiled lamely.
In a flash, the woman produced a double-barreled shotgun and pointed it at us. “Get moving. Now.” She nodded toward the house.
Fab was in mid-reach for her Walther when the woman pulled the trigger and blew out the windshield of the Hummer, glass flying everywhere.
Fab jerked on my arm, and we hit the ground and rolled into a dense thicket.
“You girls got nowhere to go.” The woman’s high-pitch laugh floated in the air. “Except where you’ll get eaten by gators.” She pulled the trigger again. “Run, sweeties, run.”
Fab rose to a half-crouch and motioned me to follow as she crawled deeper into the bushes and straight into murky, ankle-deep water. What lurked in the muck was anyone’s guess.
Resigning myself to the fact that I was in over my head when it came to finding a way out, I followed Fab’s lead, doing my best to keep up and not let fear get the better of me. She turned slightly, tapping her lips with her finger, and grabbed my hand. If anyone could get us out of this predicament, it was her; she didn’t lack in courage or skills.
Another shotgun blast filled the air. Then again. It didn’t ruffle the bushes, so what was the woman shooting at? I didn’t want to know the answer.
“Come out, come out.” The voice, pitched high and hard, echoed behind us. Hopefully, she wasn’t as close as she sounded.
Fab picked up speed, forcing her way through the underbrush.
“Answer me.” The woman’s voice lost volume as it began to fade away.
Tense with fear but not wanting to be the reason we got caught, I pulled my t-shirt up over my cheeks to protect my face from the slapping branches. Our clothing did little to protect us from the dried-out limbs that snagged and tore at the material. I tried to focus, listening for any sound that would mean the woman was advancing on us as we continued our trek through the mangroves.
She’d stopped yelling her “come to mama” commands as we continued to crawl along, hoping we were moving toward civilization. The thought was almost amusing, since we hadn’t seen much evidence of it on the drive. Hopefully, the joke wasn’t on us, with the woman not bothering to pursue us because she knew all paths led back to her, so she could sit back and be patient.
I trusted Fab’s sense of direction—her navigation skills had never let us down. It would be nice to find a sign or, better yet, a stable person to ask and ascertain our location. Thank goodness we weren’t alone—we had each other.
The trees curled in on themselves and grew more dense and harder to navigate, forcing us to wade through the shallow water as we stuck close to the crushed underbrush.
I lost all sense of time as we continued our slow hike through the vegetation. Finally we came to a clearing and surveyed the area from our partially hidden vantage point.
“Fab,” I whispered.
She shook her head.
An inquiring mind can get you in a hornet’s nest of trouble.
Opening the door of the Hummer, I set my feet on solid ground and breathed out a big sigh of relief. I gave myself a casual once-over, making sure all my body parts were in the same place they were when I left home.
Heading south on the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, Fab had maneuvered the Hummer in and out of traffic like a woman possessed, leaving Tarpon Cove city limits in the dust, headed towards Marathon. It was a beautiful, clear day, the sun flickering off the water, and I barely had a second to enjoy it as we raced by.
Smoothing down my skirt, I grabbed a sheet of paper from my purse and started across the gravel patch at the far end of the parking lot. “It’s too bad you couldn’t park any farther away from the entrance,” I grouched. “Especially with all the paved empty spaces.”
Surprised not to get an answer, I turned and saw my best friend and the subject of my ire leaning against the front bumper. “Could you walk any slower?” I tapped my watch. “The line is getting shorter.” I tossed a glance over my shoulder at the dozen or so people filing slowly inside the building. “They’re going to lock the doors.”
“I don’t like this place.” Fab crossed her arms, a militant look on her face. “I’ll wait out here.”
Sure she will. How many times have I heard that before? “This is the visitor center, not the jail, and it’s not our first trip here for inmate visitation.”
The county had spared no expense, bringing in a prefab building and dumping it on a piece of empty land across from the jail, then filling it with row after row of uncomfortable chairs and installing monitors for that up-close-and-personal experience with friends, relatives, or fellow criminals. Anyone with an outstanding warrant had better stay in their car and out of sight as they ran checks.
Fab continued to glare.
“Great idea,” I called her bluff. “Don’t expect a recap when I get back in the car.” I turned, hurried across the gravel—thankful I had on flats—and hustled up the steps.
Exes are like fish. After a couple days riding around in the trunk, they start to stink…
The sun glittered off the Tarpon Cove sign, touching everything around it. Baby blue skies straight off a postcard, fluffy clouds, and the scent of the salty water in the air—just another day in the Florida Keys.
Traffic on the Overseas Highway was light, and glancing in the rearview mirror, I was surprised to see flashing red lights bearing down on me. I checked the speedometer before easing off the gas. Speeding wasn’t the issue, as I’d been holding steady at a couple of miles an hour under the speed limit.
Just great. I’ve only had this SUV for a couple of days and already my first ticket. But for what?
I eased to the side of the road, the cop car pulling up just behind me. The officer didn’t get out right away. Shutting off the engine, I rolled down the window, keeping one eye on the rearview mirror and the other on the side mirror. Absently, I reached for my wallet, grabbing it off the passenger seat and extracting my ID. It surprised me to see two more police cruisers roll up behind the first cop.
The newest arrivals exited their cars, moving up and joining their colleague behind his open driver’s side door.
The first officer lifted a megaphone into view. “Throw your keys out the window,” he ordered.
What the hell?
“Put both hands out the window. Use one to open the door from the outside.”
This was no speeding-ticket stop.
As soon as I opened the door, another officer directed me to get out. “Stop. Get down on both knees and lie face down on the ground, hands extended outward.”
An officer approached from behind and handcuffed me, then patted me down. I assumed they were looking for weapons or drugs… or whatever. I had no clue.
“Stand,” he ordered, grabbing my upper arm and leading me to the first police car, where he directed me into the back seat.
“Why did you pull me over?”
“The car you’re driving may have been involved in a serious crime.” The officer held up a search warrant. At a quick glance, I saw that they were searching for a body and any evidence that a body may have been in the car—hair, blood, fibers.
Picking the keys up off the ground, one of the officers hit the button for the liftgate.
To my utter shock, something that closely resembled a black body bag lay in the back… and judging by the shape, chances were good there was a body inside.
After several more vehicles arrived on the scene, including the coroner’s van, the officer slid behind the wheel. He made eye contact with me in the rearview mirror. “You’re being taken into custody on suspicion of murder.”
* * *
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.”