In the Florida Keys, when you mess with the wrong people, you could wind up one trigger pull too close to becoming alligator kibble.
It was a deceptively beautiful day—barely a cloud in the sky and the humidity off the charts. The trek from the house to the Hummer engulfed my body and refused to let go. After barreling down the two-lane highway, my irritability lessened when my best friend, Fabiana Merceau, finally eased her foot off the gas and slowed somewhat from driving like a maniac.
I turned in my seat and stared out the back window, then threw my hand out, slapping Fab on the shoulder. “Turn around.”
“You could ask a little nicer.” A pout in Fab’s tone.
Just as I was about to make a threat that I wouldn’t follow through on, she jerked the wheel and hung a U-turn, barely touching the brake, and somehow managed to keep us from swerving into a ditch along Mangrove Road, which wasn’t its name but would be a fitting one. I was loath to be out here in what felt like the middle of nowhere, as I believed nothing good happened in this wilderness area. Fab would disagree. The hot French woman had been unable to resist another hottie in a sportscar, who’d rolled up alongside her soon after we left the compound, varooming the engine—race time. The man behind the wheel of the Ferrari had gunned his engine, the Hummer accepted the challenge, and the race was on as they sped along neck and neck… for a few miles anyway. Before turning, Fab had hung her hand out the window and waved to the other driver, who’d slowed when she did. He’d reciprocated, then blew up the road and disappeared in a blink. I wanted to clap but kept my relief in check.
I jabbed my finger at the windshield. “I saw a female, and it looked like she tumbled into the ravine. There’s not a lot of water down there, but enough that she could drown.” I rolled down the window and hung my head out. “There she is.” I waved at the woman hauling herself out of the grassy muck. “You need help?” I yelled.
Fear filled the woman’s face, a definite “deer in the headlights” look as she stumbled backwards out of sight.
Fab jammed on the brakes and came to a stop just past where we’d last seen the woman.
I threw open the door and jumped out, Fab right behind me.
The woman peeked out from between the tangled limbs hanging from several tall trees, making eye contact. The blood draining from her face, she squeezed her eyes shut and curled into herself.
I trudged down the side of the ravine, slogged through the ankle-deep muck, thankful to have on a skirt, and barely managed to stay upright. “We’re here to help.” I extended my hand. “We’ll give you a ride wherever you need to go.”
“Go. Just go. Before he finds me,” she croaked.
“It’s a long walk back to civilization,” Fab told her, peering down from the roadside, where she’d remained.
“Whoever you’re running from, we’ll help you get away, take you wherever you want to go,” I told her in a reassuring tone as I stumbled the few steps to her side, fighting to keep from falling. After an up-close inspection, I guessed the woman to be twentyish, and it was evident that someone had used her as a punching bag. “How about we take you to the hospital? Get you checked out.” I shuddered at the bruises, new and old, on her face and the ones on her arms and legs that could be seen where the baggy men’s t-shirt she wore ended.
“He’ll find me for sure,” she whispered.
“I can promise you that whoever he is, he won’t find you.” I held out my hand. After some hesitation, she slipped her hand in mine, and I helped her up the slight incline. With every step, she winced in pain. It didn’t help that she was barefoot; if she’d had shoes before she fell into the ravine, they were nowhere in sight.
“He found me last time,” she whimpered as we reached the roadside. “Said if I ran again, he’d kill me.”
“All the more reason to get you out of here.” I coaxed her toward the SUV.
“You promise not to take me to the hospital? Or call the police?”
“Promise.” I opened the car door.
“Take me away from here.” She batted a tear from her cheek. “Anywhere is fine. Then let me out, and I’ll figure out where to go next.”
Fab had spread a beach towel over the back seat. It took the two of us to help her inside, every move eliciting a groan of pain. Once seated, she slumped over, rested her head against the window and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths.
“I’m Madison. That’s Fab.” I pointed.
She hesitated for so long; I didn’t think she was going to give her name. “Susan?” she said tentatively. I knew it was a lie.
“Do you have family or friends in the area?” I asked.
Fear flooded her face, and after several seconds, she mumbled, “No one.”
I grabbed another towel from the back and handed it to her. “Feel free to stretch out on the seat. If you fall asleep, I’ll wake you when we get back to Tarpon Cove.” The girl was exhausted. Her eyes fluttered closed, and she didn’t open them again as she stretched out.
Fab had looked her over from head to toe more than once before closing the door and sliding behind the wheel. She glanced over at me and whispered, “She needs a doctor.”
“I promised no hospital.”
Fab scanned the highway in both directions—not a car or person in sight. “What are we going to do with her?”
“She’s terrified of someone.” I flipped the visor down to look in the mirror, and she hadn’t moved. “She’s been pretty battered and isn’t in any shape to have gotten very far. That means whoever she’s running from might not be far behind.”
“Let’s get the heck out of here.” Fab pulled onto the road heading back to Tarpon Cove, the first town at the top of the Florida Keys, and didn’t speed off in her usual fashion.
I leaned back against the seat and pulled out my phone. I’d proven in the past that I could come up with a plan in a second, and now was the time to capitalize on that skill. I scrolled through my contacts for ideas. Macklin Lane would be my first call—she was the property manager extraordinaire who managed my beach-front property and the loons that lived there with finesse. Another plus, she never skipped a beat at any request I made. I glanced into the mirror and was certain that Susan was asleep. I felt assured that, even though I was hitting the speaker button, we wouldn’t be overheard. From experience, I knew that if you want to be part of a conversation happening in the front, you have to scoot up and hang your head over the seat. This way, Fab wouldn’t grumble about being left out the whole time I was talking. Neither of us were fond of repeating conversations—something was always left out in the retelling.
“It’s your favorite boss,” I said when Mac answered.
“Figured as soon as I put my feet on the desk you’d be showing up or calling, and here you are. Makes me a mind reader.” She laughed at her humor.
“I’ve got a favor to ask. To be honest, I didn’t know who else to call. That said, feel free to say no.”
“Must be a doozy.”
I already knew we were booked up at The Cottages, a ten-unit property I inherited. “Would you rent your spare bedroom for a day or two?” Before she could respond, I told her how Fab and I found the girl and that I didn’t know anything about her except that she reeked of fear.
“If she’s as beat up as you say, what if she dies?” Mac asked. “You’re the do-gooder with little thought to the consequences; as for myself, I’d prefer not to end up in jail.”
“That’s why my next call is going to be to a doctor that makes house calls.”
Mac snorted. “I guess you’ve forgotten that the one we had on speed dial moved away. The rest are too busy, with folks so stacked up in their waiting rooms, they only have to yell ‘next.’”
“I can find someone,” I said, more to reassure myself than her. “I’m thinking that after a day or two of rest, she’ll get back on her feet and be able to tell us how to help her. If it turns out she really doesn’t have anyplace to go, I can hook her up with a women’s shelter with professionals that will know how to help her.”
“Do I have your promise that I can call at any time and you’ll come pick her up? No arguing.”
“At the first sign of anything you don’t like, you get hot on the phone.”
“You can count on it,” Mac said emphatically.
“There’s one more thing—since we don’t know what or who she’s running from, we want to keep her presence a secret,” I said.
“Got it. See you in a few.”
We both hung up.
“Do-gooder sums you up,” Fab said with a snort. “Mac had a good point about Jane Doe dying. We’ll all end up in jail for a long time. And not as cellmates either.”
“Her name is Susan,” I reminded her in an uppity tone.
“When pigs start flying.”
I laughed, which pleased Fab, and scrolled through my phone again. No doctors, but the next best thing. “Hey baldie,” I said when Casio Famosa—retired decorated Miami detective—answered. I wasn’t sure if he shaved or waxed, as I hadn’t asked.
“You must want something, since you’re being so nice,” Casio grumped.
“I need a doctor that makes house calls and pronto. If you want details, you’ll need to swear on a body part to keep quiet.”
“Pinky swear, like my daughter insists on.”
Casio’s wife had succumbed to cancer several years ago, and he took his role as his four kids’ remaining parent seriously. He always worried about making the right decisions, but they adored him, so he was doing something right.
“I’m happy your kids are training you right.” I told him about the girl we found and the condition she was in. “Maybe… since you’re a retired cop, you could give us your two cents. Gratis, of course.”
“You know what they say about good deeds? I can smell trouble from where I’m sitting, and I’m not even close by.” Casio grunted. “My best advice is to take her to the hospital. Since that probably blew through your ears, knowing you, where are you taking her?” I told him. “Let me make some calls, and I’ll get back to you.” He hung up.
“Here’s my free advice,” Fab said, looking in the rearview mirror. “It’s incredibly nice that you didn’t leave Susan on the side of the road. Not that I would’ve, but then, I didn’t see her.”
“The advice?” I rolled my hand.
“Her problems appear to be huge, and I’m suggesting that you not get any more involved than you already are. Find the women’s shelter you mentioned and make it their problem; they’ll know what to do. If not, they can get the answers.”
Fab was right. It was good advice that I should listen to. After the doctor checked her out, I’d research women’s shelters and give one a call.
Fab turned off the main highway into a residential neighborhood, made two more turns, and backed into the driveway of Mac’s yellow house across the street from two properties I owned—The Cottages, which backed up to the beach, and the apartment building next door.
In Tarpon Cove, murder-solving is a spectator sport.
“Oh yeah, she’s dead,” Rude Banner said in a breathy whisper that could be heard down the block as she tromped backward out of the bushes that lined the front of the two-story apartment building, wobbling unsteadily on her feet. That morning, she’d donned cut-offs, a tank top, and faded knee-high turquoise rain boots, a safari hat tied under her chin.
Cootie, her someday husband, plodded down the driveway in jean overalls over a wife-beater and craned his neck to peer over the bushes. “Oh yeah, the broad kicked the bucket all right. Anyone we know?” he shouted in a gravelly voice.
The sixty-something couple had hooked up out in the mangroves and found out that they had similar interests—a love of moonshine, big slithery bugs, and other fascinations that bonded them.
“Appears to be Pastel from unit seven,” Rude yelled as she trotted over and stood next to Cootie. She bent so far over the sidewalk, she was in danger of falling flat. Cootie jerked on her matching wife-beater, and she straightened and turned. “She’s starting to bloat,” she said, accentuating that by puffing out her cheeks, “so she’s been here a while. Must’ve missed her on my evening walk.”
“You mean on your nightly snoop, sticking your nose into other folks’ business, whether they like it or not.” Cootie gave her a one-eyed squint.
“It’s called being friendly; you should try it,” Rude snapped.
“Okay, you two,” I said as Fab and I got closer. “No fighting in front of a dead body… or the neighbors.” I nudged Fab, indicating with my head that she should go and inspect said body. No one would argue it wasn’t her forte. “Call 911,” I threw out to anyone willing to make the call.
“Madison Westin,” my bestie, Fabiana Merceau, said, shooting me a dirty look. Not sure why, since it didn’t slow the sexy French woman from checking out the deceased. She took her phone out of her pocket. Another specialty of hers—pictures. The more ghoulish, the better.
What a weird morning, and it had only just begun.
The ringing of my phone had woken me up. “Dead one out front,” Rude whispered hoarsely as soon as I answered. “You need to get over here pronto.” She hung up.
I groaned and rolled over.
Creole’s piercing blue eyes were focused on me in annoyance. “I’m afraid to ask. What now?”
I repeated the brief conversation.
“Your family’s right—it’s past time to sell.” He turned onto his side and pulled the sheet over his head.
I owned rental property on the other side of the Cove, and in the past, it’d attracted, to put it bluntly, nutjobs. In my defense, I did my best to block any and all attempts by said folks to move in, but unfortunately, some snuck in under the radar.
So much for my husband going with me. I scooted off the bed and crossed the room, going into the closet to change into work clothes—crop sweats, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes were a must.
Creole had bought the house from an investor looking for a quick flip. He’d knocked out the walls and remodeled it into one large open space, with pocket doors along the wall that opened to a view of the water. The mammoth bathroom with high-end finishes shared the same view as the rest of the house.
I hurried into the kitchen, which was a large expanse of stainless steel and granite, everything top of the line. The island was my favorite for spreading out paperwork, as it gave me plenty of space. I made a quick cup of coffee to take with me while sending off a text to my best friend and partner in crime, Fab. “Dead body. Interested?”
Creole stuck his head out from under the sheet and grouched, “I hope you’re not bothering Fab. Didier likes to spend mornings with his wife.” He rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed, his feet hitting the floor.
My phone pinged with an incoming text: “Pick me up out front.”
Instead of answering Creole’s glare, I poured my coffee into a thermos. “I’ll call you later.” I hustled out the door and into my Hummer.
I flew down to the opposite end of the compound—aptly named, since Fab’s father had bought the rest of the block, including the two other houses there, as a wedding gift and had security fencing installed. Fab walked out of her front door just as I pulled into the driveway. I got out and swapped sides so Fab could use her race-car-driving skills to scoot us across the Cove.
Tarpon Cove was located at the top of the Florida Keys, and as we flew down the highway, I did my best to catch a glimpse of the sunlight gleaming on the blue-green waters of the Gulf, which rippled today in the slight wind. A heron glided gracefully in front of us and over to a nearby beach.
Fab parked the SUV around the corner from the two properties I owned. With a sense of urgency, the two of us got out and cut down a walkway between two neighboring houses in time to find Rude and Cootie making their way back out of the bushes.
“Remind me, who’s the manager here?” I pointed to the apartment building I’d recently purchased, now certain to be the center of hot gossip. Rude raised her hand tentatively. “It’s your job to call 911,” I told her. Just because she ignored me the first time didn’t mean I was going to make the call.
“Cootie?” Rude said in a whiney tone, waving at the man, who started walking backwards. “Hon?”
“I’m already late getting to the job site.” Cootie ran his hand through his two clumps of grey hair, which stuck up on end. He grumbled something unintelligible and didn’t let his work boots slow him as he ran to his pickup and hopped in. Without a backwards glance, he hit the gas and squealed off down the street.
Rude mumbled to herself, jerking her phone out of her pocket so hard, I expected to hear a ripping noise. She cursed the screen before placing the call.
A door slammed in the distance. I didn’t bother to peer over my shoulder, knowing who the shoes slapping down the middle of the street belonged to—the manager of my cottages, Macklin Lane. I’d inherited the ten units next door from my Aunt Elizabeth—individual cottages built around a U-shaped driveway, which backed up to the beach with easy access. Out of view from where we stood was a large pool and tiki bar area.
“Hey.” Mac bristled, skidding to a stop next to me. “There’s excitement and no one calls me? I’d have called you.” The overly endowed woman had stuffed herself into a body-hugging knit dress, a flamingo wide-eyed and winking on the front. The shoes that could be heard on the next block were pink slides with artificial grass growing out of the soles, the bands across the top adorned with fake flowers.
I sighed and waited while Mac blew smoke out of her ears, then pointed her in the direction of the deceased. Not to be outdone, immediately went over to where Fab was stepping out of the plants, whipped her phone out, and took her own pictures.
Shaking her head, Fab rejoined me. “Not much to see, other than that the woman’s dead.”
“What’s your professional opinion?” I asked her. I’d give her assessment the same weight as any coroner’s. Given her sophistication, you’d never guess her penchant for the morbid.
“My professional guess is that the deceased was offed several hours ago. Florida weather isn’t conducive to leaving a dead body in the elements. Deteriorates fast.” Fab scrunched up her nose. “No visible signs as to cause of death, but she was lying on her back and I thought shoving her over with my shoe wasn’t respectful.”
“That wise choice also saved you from being charged with fooling with a corpse.”
Sirens could be heard in the distance, coming up the main highway through town.
“I say we go over and sit on Mac’s porch and watch the drama unfold.” Fab tugged on my sleeve. “She’s got a good vantage point, and we won’t be up in the middle of things.”
I hooked my arm in hers and turned. “Let’s not dawdle. When the cops get here, I want to be able to plead ignorance.” I skidded to a stop and yelled to Mac and Rude, “We’ll be over there.” I pointed and waved.
Rude, who was still on the phone answering questions, waved over her head. Mac crossed the street to talk to one of the neighbors. Or question the woman.
Fab and I climbed the steps to Mac’s house and rearranged the chairs on the porch for an unobstructed view.
We’d barely sat down when Crum, one of my tenants from The Cottages, strutted down the driveway, a stack of beach chairs in his arms. He’d been banned from wearing the underwear-only attire he preferred, and today, he’d donned a flirty skirt over his tighty-whities and paired the ensemble with mismatched, dog-eaten tennis shoes. He clunked across the street, dumped the chairs in Mac’s driveway, unfolded them, and formed two rows.
“What are you doing?” I yelled, eyeing the chairs and willing to wager a fiver that they were rescues from trash day and that somehow the man was about to make money off the finds. Anyone who knew Crum wouldn’t be stupid enough to take the bet.
“Good morning, ladies.” Crum ignored my question and started back across the street.
“Bring back two bottled waters,” I yelled at his back.
He spun around and came back, hand out. “I need the key to the office. Unless you want me to fill a couple of bottles from the hose.”
Fab handed over the keys. “Cold ones, please. Unopened.”
“What do I get for my benevolence?”
“Help yourself. But don’t stuff your underwear.” I bit my lip to stop from laughing at Fab’s groan.
Crum came back five minutes later, water in hand and leading a line of people across the street. They filled the chairs just as two cop cars pulled around the corner and parked in front of the apartment building.
“What’s the old goat up to?” Fab eyed the group with suspicion.
Before I could tell her to ask him, she yelled, “Hey.”
Crum deciphered that one word as a complete question and puffed up his chest. “Sold prime seating to view the transfer of the body. When there’s a buck to be made, I’m your man.” The snooty retired college professor had enough dough to buy up the whole block, but he found it more entertaining to see how hard he could squeeze a nickel.
It was the guests from The Cottages interested in the unfolding drama who’d rented a chair. The regulars were still sleeping off their drunks from the night before, and it wouldn’t be their first dead body anyway.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Kevin Cory getting out of the first cop car. Another officer climbed out of the second one. I’d seen him a time or two but couldn’t remember his name. A minute later, an ambulance rolled up.
Kevin was a local sheriff’s deputy and a tenant at The Cottages who’d been snuck in by my brother. One would’ve thought he’d have packed his bags and moved on long ago, since we only tolerated one another. But no. He’d decided he liked the place well enough that he could ignore that I was a pain in his backside.
Folks, apparently tired of peeking out the blinds, spilled out of their houses and crowded the sidewalk, most not venturing past their driveways. A brave one or two moved into the street and closer to the crime scene for a better look.
A third cop car pulled up and blocked off the end of the street closest to us.
“You’ve got to admit, it was a good idea of mine to sit where, so far, we haven’t missed anything,” Fab said, and laughed.
“I forgot to thank you for letting me intrude on your morning. I appreciate not having to come over here by myself.”
“As soon as I read ‘dead body’ to Didier, he started laughing and said, ‘You’d never miss that.’ Besides, he was headed to the office. Which reminds me.” Fab pulled out her phone.
When she started speaking in French, I knew she had her husband on the phone and guessed he was getting an update.
Our husbands insisted on being kept in the loop and stressed that we choose personal safety over anything else. Or Creole used to before I bested a drug dealer in the purchase of the building next door. In retaliation, he’d kidnapped Creole and Didier. Creole came back with a head injury that he hadn’t fully recovered from, although the doctors assured us it could happen any day. The actual circumstances surrounding his injury were unclear, as he still hadn’t been able to remember the events of that day. Now, he never mentioned safety or calling with updates. I tried not to let it bother me.
Mac came trotting around the corner. She’d learned all the shortcuts from Fab and used one to cut over to another street and come around the back way, leaving no one the wiser that she’d looked her fill at the body. For the next few days, she’d be popular at Custer’s, a seedy local bar she occasionally frequented. The retelling of the drama would get her a free beer or two. She threw herself into a chair next to me and propped her grassy slides up on the railing.
Kevin got on the loudspeaker in his car and ordered everyone out of the street under threat of arrest. The coroner’s van rounded the corner and slowed in the middle of the street, taking the space that the ambulance had just vacated.
“Well?” Fab asked Mac.
“Turns out dead chick isn’t Pastel, who proved that by poking her head over the railing, surveying the scene, and going back inside,” Mac said. “Rude seemed to think there was a resemblance, but I couldn’t see it. I imagine that when the dead woman was still sucking air, she looked a lot different.”
“Got a clue as to the cause of death?” I asked.
“Gunshot,” Mac said.
“How do you know that?” Fab demanded.
“Rude, uh… thinking she was alive and that it might help her breathe if she were on her side, moved her a bit with her foot and saw the blood and the hole.” Mac demonstrated with her shoe.
Fab made a choking noise. “You need to tell Rude to toss the boots.”
“That’s a terrible idea,” Mac said snootily. “I’m going to suggest that she display them on a shelf with a little placard saying they’d been to a murder scene.”
I didn’t bother giving her my opinion, which I knew she wouldn’t want to hear, and instead changed the subject. “Wouldn’t one of the neighbors have reported hearing a gun shot?”
“You’re asking me?” Mac asked.
“Save the innocent face. You know whenever someone sneezes in this neighborhood, probably the entire Cove.” I took her non-response to mean that no one had poked their head out their door and admitted to anything. “I expect to be kept up to date. Since you’re training the new manager…” I indicated Rude, who’d rapidly overcome her reticence and appeared to be enjoying being in the center of the action, answering all the questions the cops were shooting at her. “You need to tell her.”
“No need to worry on that score.” Mac snorted. “I’ll be telling her plenty. I’m still not over Rude calling you before me.”
“Go easy on her,” I said. “It’s probably her first dead body, and people can get squeamish and forget to bypass the owner.” Some people anyway.
We sat there for nearly an hour, and it was boring. Some of the people that paid for seating started asking when the police chase would start, a testament to Crum knowing how to sell non-existent excitement.
Fab’s stomach growled, and it was music to my ears. I knew we wouldn’t be there much longer. She stood and stared at me, telegraphing let’s go.
“If Kevin comes looking for me,” I said to Mac, “tell him that after I barfed in your bushes, you insisted I go home and Fab drove me.”
“You might want to put on the performance of a lifetime before you sneak your butt out of here so folks can corroborate my story.” Mac waved to the guests that hadn’t bailed on the drama and crossed her arms, waiting for me to put on a show.
I stood. “Let’s hope Kevin doesn’t ask, and if he does, you have time to make something up.”
Fab put her arm around my shoulders. “Just lean on me, and we’ll cut out the back.”
“I’ll call you and let you know how I’m feeling later.” I winked at Mac.
Madison Westin lives by the Unbreakable Rule of IOUs: When it’s time to collect, no whining allowed.
Three loud knocks disturbed the silence of the sun-washed morning streaming through the open patio doors.
I looked up from where I sat on the couch, my cats, Jazz and Snow, asleep on my feet. The loud noise hadn’t disturbed their nap, as neither opened an eye.
A cop knock at its best. And on my door. It wasn’t my best friend, Fab, as she’d have picked the lock, knowing after a quick count of the cars that I was home alone. Besides, she had an early appointment to install a security system and would be gone for most of the day.
I got up and walked into the kitchen, pausing momentarily in front of the junk drawer and giving a brief thought to opening it and removing my Berretta. Deciding it was probably a workman and a firearm wasn’t friendly, even if it wasn’t pointed at someone’s face, I opened the door. “How the heck did you get past the security gate and my fence?”
Casio Famosa stood on my doorstep, a stupid grin on his face. The Miami detective moved his overly large and muscled frame forward in an attempt to hug me. I stepped back. “Lucked out at the front gate and came in when the gardener drove out. Your fence—lockpick.” He chuckled, holding it up before pocketing it. “I know you’re familiar with how they work.”
“I suppose, good manners and all, that I should invite you in.” I continued to stand in the middle of the doorway.
“Maybe next time. I don’t have time for niceties.” Casio tugged on my hand, yanking me out the door and into the driveway.
My flip-flops barely touched the ground. “I fall and I’m shooting you.”
Casio came to an abrupt halt and made sure I had both feet on the ground before he let go. “You know those IOUs you’ve strewn about like cheap confetti?”
“I take exception to your description,” I said huffily. “I do no such thing.”
Amongst my family and friends, we traded favors in the form of IOUs, which came with the understanding that there would be no whining when they were redeemed.
“Anyway, I have a few, and I’m here to cash them in.” He whistled.
I rubbed the side of my head, wincing from the shrill sound. “Another reason to shoot you—if I go deaf.”
“I’m also reminding you of your own words—not exact but close enough— that they come with a no-grumbling clause. I wouldn’t want you to forget and feel bad.” He smiled cheekily.
The doors of his SUV flew open, and four children piled out. My uneducated guess was that they ranged in age from pre-teen to kindergarten.
“Kids, this is the nice lady I told you about.” He waved expansively to them and turned to me briefly. “I’m on a very important case, one that I’ve been working for a long time—a really big one. It means ridding the streets of drug-dealing vermin and making them safe for your children and mine.” He crossed to the driver’s door, jerked it open, took a large manila envelope off the dash, and thrust it at me.
“The problem with this conversation is that you know what you’re talking about and I have no clue.” I pointed to the kids. “Why are they unloading suitcases?”
“I’ll only be gone a couple of days, week max, and before you know it, I’ll be back to pick them up.”
I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. “I don’t know anything about kids,” I said in a bit of a panic. “Cats, yes. Not kids.”
“That works. Just treat them like two-footed furry things.”
The oldest kid caught my attention. Leaning against the bumper, he had the same smirk on his face that I’d often seen on his father’s. “Your son.” I pointed. “Alejandro, I believe. Given that he had me arrested for kidnapping and hauled off to jail, aren’t you the slightest bit worried I might leave him on the roadside to play in traffic?”
“Two reasons: you shouldn’t hold a grudge, because that’s unbecoming and old news, and he was a kid and still is.” Casio turned to his son and bellowed, “Alex, an apology, please.”
“I promised my dad not to have you arrested on bogus charges again. Or anyone else.” He added the latter grudgingly, not looking happy.
I waited for a curtsy or something after that performance and got a tight-lipped expression. “Great apology,” I mumbled.
As the three boys and one girl stood waiting patiently, you couldn’t miss the resemblance to their father. They were lined up oldest to youngest, suitcases in hand, staring expectantly as though being dropped off at a stranger’s house was normal.
“I can’t do this,” I said in a near-panic, realizing the man was serious. “I’m not qualified. What about your family? I heard somewhere that you have a bushelful of relates.”
Fab and I had done work for his twin brother, smarmy Brick Famosa, in the past. The only difference, looks wise, was that Brick had a thick head of dark hair and Casio was shiny bald.
Casio tugged on the sleeve of my t-shirt, turning me away from the kids and lowering his voice. “I chose you to help because I know you’re the best person to help me keep my promise to my dying wife.” He took notice of my stricken expression and explained, “She died of cancer a year ago, and I swore that I wouldn’t fuck them up. Besides, you can count on Alex to help with the others. He’s the smartest of the bunch; takes after his old man.” He beamed with pride. “If this wasn’t such a big case… A couple of days to get these criminals locked up, and I’ll be back. I told my kids that you’re a longtime family friend, which is kind of the truth, and that you’ll be a hell of a lot more fun than any of my kin, who already think I suck as a father. One went so far as to suggest that I give up my parental rights.” That visibly angered him. “I did try Disney World, but they don’t have a camping program.” He winked.
“I don’t want to be mean, and I do keep my promises, but staying with me is not a good idea. I’m sure your wife wouldn’t approve of this cockamamie idea.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Celia came to me in a dream and suggested you,” he said with a cagey smile.
“You’re so full of it,” I said. “Celia and I never even met.”
“Please. I trust you with my kids and know that I won’t have to worry.” Casio grabbed my face in his hand, his brown eyes boring into mine. “You’d be doing your civic duty.”
I didn’t remember nodding, but I must have, as he patted me on the back.
“You’re the best.” Casio ran over to his kids and hugged and kissed each one, and then they did a group hug. “Be good. I’ll be back in a couple of days.” He got in his SUV, rolled down the window, and waved as he roared down the street.
I watched as he disappeared, thinking he’d turn around and come back, but the brake lights didn’t even flicker. I turned to the kids, and we exchanged stares, none of us seemingly knowing what to do next.
“I’m Madison,” I said, realizing there’d been no introductions. “I want to disclose up front that I have no kid experience and chances are high that I’ll make mistakes. I apologize in advance.” I struggled for an encouraging smile.
The youngest, the little girl, dropped her suitcase and ran over, arms out. I bent down and caught her in a hug. “My daddy tells us the same thing, and he does okay.” She gave me a big kiss on the cheek. “I’m Liliana; everyone calls me Lili. My brothers are Cisco and Diego.” The identical twins waved, not the least bit fazed by being dropped off. Alex stood next to them with his arms crossed, his expression cocky, waiting for me to… I wasn’t sure.
I appreciated Lil’s confidence but didn’t share it.
Ah… life in Tarpon Cove, at the top of the Florida Keys. Sand, surf, sun-washed breakfast and… handcuffs?
That morning, Creole and I met our best friends, Fab and Didier, at our favorite restaurant, a local haunt called the Bakery Café. Fab snagged our usual table at the far end of the sidewalk, prime for people watching. We’d finished our breakfast and were lingering over coffee, making plans for the day, when a cop car careened up and illegally parked diagonally in front, blocking in a couple of cars, ours included.
“What?” Fab demanded.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this.” I attempted to rub away my tingling neck hair, which everyone who knew me knew was a bad sign.
“Maybe someone attempted to rob the restaurant again.”
blue eyes scanned every corner of the open-air patio.
The car doors opened, and two officers got out.
They weren’t local. I was on a first-name basis with most of the officers on the force.
Creole straightened in his chair.
One cop approached our table; the other hung back, hand on his weapon.
“Fabiana Merceau?” the officer asked.
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Stand, please. You’re under arrest for the murder of Aurora Bissett.” The officer stood over her, cuffs in hand.
Fab stood slowly in her designer heels, smoothing down her skinny jeans and silk blouse. “I don’t know that person, and I’ve never murdered anyone.” She tucked her long brown hair over her shoulder.
“Hands behind your back.”
“Where are you taking her?” Didier asked. He also stood, towering over her. Her husband’s dark hair managed to fall perfectly against his face, exposing intense blue eyes, growing darker as his worry grew.
“Not a word without your attorney present.” I sat up straighter and made a “zip-lip and throw away the key” motion. I reached under the table for Creole’s hand and squeezed, happy he was by my side. He put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close and threading his fingers through my wild red mane. Thank you, humidity.
“Everyone, stay seated,” the other officer who’d stepped forward said, accentuating his command with a stern stare around our table and the one next to us.
The rest of the customers seated outside had ceased their conversations and turned their chairs for a better view, all ears, their attention on the unfolding drama. Patrons and employees that had been inside filled the doorways.
The first officer slapped the cuffs on Fab and led her to the car, assisting her into the backseat. Seconds later, he signaled to the other officer, who climbed in, and the two pulled back into traffic.
“I’m going to follow them.” Didier ran and jumped in his Mercedes, not noticing the women who turned to stare. He squealed out of his parking spot and followed the cops down the street.
The waiter came over, and Creole settled the bill.
Shifting in my chair to face Creole, I told him, “I want to go to the station. Fab’s going to need a friend.”
“Fab has her husband, and he’d never let anything happen to her,” Creole said, as though I needed to be reminded. “He’ll get her the best representation.” He pulled me to my feet.
I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him. “I’m going. Fab would be there for me.”
“Not by yourself.” Creole grabbed my arm and walked me to the Hummer, opening the door. I slid in. “I recognized one of the officers, and Fab’s on her way to Miami. Whatever went down happened in their jurisdiction.”
had been an undercover cop until he got shot up and, after a long recuperation,
decided he’d had enough. Now, he, Didier, and my brother, Brad, had formed a
real estate partnership—a family affair, as every member was an investor, all
of us silent until a vote was needed on the next venture.
I retrieved my phone from my pocket and paused as Creole fired one question after another at me about Aurora Bissett. The biggest one being who was she? I had to tell him several times that, like Fab, I had no clue who the woman was and thus didn’t have any idea why someone would want her dead or why Fab was a suspect.
never got old living in Tarpon Cove, ideally located at the top of the Florida
Keys. The sun shone brightly that morning and glittered off the blue-green
water. But I was having a hard time enjoying the warm weather this morning. I
turned my face upward and soaked in the warm rays.
Creole had shot up the Overseas Highway and took the curve north, headed to Miami, when his phone rang. I knew from his vague answers that it was Didier and he wasn’t happy with the direction of the conversation. Fab and I, for the most part, shared phone calls on speakerphone; the guys refused.
“Didier doesn’t want you involved,” Creole said after he hung up. “He already called Tank, who’s out of town, so Didier called in a favor from a friend. He promised to call when they get back home.”
Fab had met Tank during a jail visitation—he’d professed his innocence, and apparently he wasn’t full of it, as he’d retained his license and set up a law office in the Cove.
“What? What are you talking about? Fab needs a lawyer. And a good one. Who better than me to help?” Didier knew that without having to be reminded.
“Didier’s got that covered. He has a friend who’s a lawyer. He’s already contacted him, and the man is meeting them at the station. So Fab’s got representation.” He pulled into a left turn lane to hang a u-turn and head back south.
I struggled to suck down a loud groan. “Fine, take me home,” I said militantly. “Once we get there, I won’t be getting out. I’ll drive myself. If you think I would sit back and do nothing, you’d be mistaken. Fab would be there for me and has proven so in the past, and I’m not letting her down.”
“Madison Westin,” Creole growled, “you are the stubbornest woman ever.”
I turned my head slightly, sucking in a calming breath, which rarely worked to relax my nerves. “That was disclosed before the I-dos, and you signed off,” I reminded him in a superior tone. “Too late now. I don’t want to hear about marryer’s remorse.”
“You’re aggravating.” He signaled and pulled back into traffic.
“Another irritating trait already disclosed,” I snapped, biting back a smile, happy that I didn’t have to drive myself. It would be worth any favors I had to pony up later.
In the Westin family, we traded favors like hard currency, and the idea had spread to our friends, catching on and becoming popular. It came with the stipulation that when asked to pay up on said favor, you had to do it without complaining.
I decided I’d had enough of the silence. “I know that you know this is a death penalty state. No offense to Didier’s friend, whoever he is, but he’s not the best criminal attorney in the state. That would be Cruz Campion. Fab needs the best, and he’s it. I’ll bet that she’d agree with me.”
“Didier is her husband; don’t you think he knows what’s best for her?”
I caught my snort in time. “No, I don’t. Not in this case,” I said in a huff. “Didier’s a businessman and has zero experience with the law.” I underscored that by holding up my fingers, forming an O. “You know I’m right, Mr. Ex-Undercover Badass.” I stabbed my finger at him. “Who would you want? Some priss Didier probably met hobnobbing at a South Beach party when he was a highly sought-after model, or a lawyer with an excellent win record in criminal court?”
I’d put off making the call to Cruz’s office long enough, assailed by an attack of nerves. Our relationship was tenuous at best. I flicked through the contacts in my phone and called the man in question. It surprised me when his snooty assistant, Susie, didn’t answer and the call was instead transferred to the receptionist. “May I speak with Mr. Campion?” I hesitated to give my name, in case I was on a banned list. I knew that if Susie had answered, she’d never have put the call through. I’d bypassed her a couple of times to get to her boss, and she’d never forgiven me.
“Mr. Campion is gone for the day,” a young voice said in a harried tone. Susie would’ve hung up.
“When would be a good time to call back?”
“Tomorrow afternoon. He has court in the morning.”
“Thank you.” I hung up. That was the best news next to his taking the call.
Cruz blamed me for his grandmother getting her bump and grind on while on vacation. He’d had to be reminded that I owned vacation cottage rentals and wasn’t in the business of regulating my guests’ sex lives. It had fallen on deaf ears. I’d thought about banning every one of his nine hundred relatives from ever getting another reservation. Good thing I hadn’t because it gave me enough of an edge for this conversation, or so I hoped. How long it lasted would depend on his mood.
I called the next person on my list, hanging up after a minute. “That’s irritating and a first—calling the chief of police and getting an answering machine.” I called the main number for the Miami police department.
“He’s no longer here,” said the man who answered, then hung up.
“Did you know that the chief ditched his job?” I asked Creole, staring at the screen.
“I guess you need to be reminded that you have a much better relationship with the man than I ever did.”
laughed, which earned me a raised eyebrow. “I can’t help that I’m charming.”
snorted and asked in a suspicion-laced tone, “Who are you calling now?”
I ignored him as the call was diverted to a message box. “I hope you didn’t blow the area without so much as a good-bye. I need a favor, if you’re so inclined. If not, I’ve got criminal friends I can call.” I hung up.
Creole shook his head.
“That was Spoon, and he knows I’m kidding. Why do you suppose he didn’t answer?” Jimmy Spoon was married to my mother and was seldom averse to doing me a favor.
“I’m sure that friendly message you just left will get you a return call.”
“Sarcasm is unbecoming.”
“You should be very nice to me. I may be the only one speaking to you when you’re done with your behind-the-scenes machinations, which you’ve been asked nicely not to do, and oh look, you’re doing anyway.” Creole knew a shortcut to the station, having worked there for years, and he pulled into the parking garage from a back road. He picked up his phone, making a call. “Where are you? Madison didn’t take no for an answer, so we’re here to hold your hand until you run us off.” He laughed and hung up, then got out and went around to help me out, grabbing my hand in a tight hold as though I might make a run for it. We hiked across the street.
Didier was easy to find. He was the only person in the reception area other than the man at the front desk answering the phones. We sat in uncomfortable chairs next to him.
Didier looked at me and held up his hand. “Before you get started, I called Cruz first and was told that he’s not taking new clients.”
“Did you identify yourself as Fab’s husband?”
We waited for what seemed like forever. Two hours, to be exact. Finally, a man wearing an expensive suit, not a strand of his sun-bleached hair out of place, strolled in, gave the lobby an arrogant once-over, and headed straight to Didier, who introduced him as Kurt Byron, South Miami criminal lawyer. He acknowledged Creole and me with the briefest of glances and directed Didier to join him off to one side. When they finished their short conversation, he went to the desk, and Didier motioned Creole over. I knew it was another “you can take your wife home” conversation, assuring us that he had the situation handled.
They exchanged a few words, and Creole strolled back, a determined glint in his eyes. Recognizing he was about to fling his arm around me, I didn’t step out of his reach and also didn’t offer up another argument about not leaving, which he was clearly expecting. “We’re going home.” He escorted me out of the building and back to the car.
Back on the highway, I got my phone back out and called Gunz, one of Fab’s longtime friends and business associate, who had far-reaching connections. He answered on the first ring. I’d improved in his esteem after successfully working with Fab on a couple of jobs for him. “Fab is being held at the police station in Miami on a murder charge. I don’t know anything other than that she was arrested. Any update you could get would be helpful. And if necessary, could you also have someone on standby, ready to make bail?”
“I’m on it,” Gunz grunted and hung up.
I scrolled through my phone and made another call. “Huge favor,” I said to Xander when he answered. If you asked him, he’d tell you he was VP of the first business that Fab and I had started together, which was nothing more than a phone number on a business card since we couldn’t agree on a name. Of course, no one knew that. It wouldn’t be professional. “Fab’s been arrested for murder,” I blurted when he answered. “She didn’t do it. I need you to run a check on Kurt Byron; he’s a lawyer friend of Didier’s. What I want to know is what his reputation is and, more importantly, has he had any murder cases and what’s his win record? You can bill me triple if you get the information back to me before tomorrow morning.” I gave him the few scant details about Byron that I’d garnered from Creole. “One more job. This isn’t a rush but don’t dawdle.” I pinched Creole’s thigh.
I shot him a cheeky grin. “The dead woman’s name?”
“Aurora Bissett,” he snapped.
I repeated it to Xander. “I want to know everything there is to know about the woman and any connection you can find to Fab.”
Xander was our information specialist, and he was damn good at his job. While finishing his last year of college at the University of Miami, he’d eagerly agreed to work remotely. It was rare now for him to make an appearance at the office and lounge on the couch, which was his first choice for a seat, mainly for the advantage of seeing everything going on. It surprised me to find that I missed having him underfoot.
“It’s impressive to watch you in action.” Creole smiled at me as I shoved my phone back in my pocket. “Fab’s lucky to have you as a friend.”
Dodging bullets, running for your life, and other pesky issues. Just another day at the beach.
A scream ripped through the night air.
Creole, who was sitting next to me, stood and pulled me to my feet in one
“Was it too much to expect that we’d get through the grand opening drama
free?” I asked my husband. Now there was a word I never tired of thinking or
Before he could answer, another scream followed. He grabbed my hand, and we
turned and ran toward the sound. This time, I recognized it as coming from my
mother, who stood in the doorway of the room she’d been assigned. From the
horror etched on her face, it wasn’t an oversized cockroach that had her making
the bloodcurdling sound.
Creole maneuvered us around the guests, who’d been partying around the pool
in the middle of the u-shaped property and now turned to stare, all probably
thinking the same thing as me: “What’s going on?”
Mother’s husband, Jimmy Spoon, flew to her side, getting there steps ahead
of me. He wrapped his arms around her, and she buried her face in his chest and
mumbled incoherently. He peered into the room over the top of her head and
pulled her away.
“She’s dead,” Mother whispered faintly, cocking her head towards the open
I poked my head inside and saw a blonde-haired woman face down on the floor
in the entrance to the bathroom. She was naked, and other than the bed strewn
with her clothes, nothing else in the room had been disturbed.
“I’m certain she’s just passed out drunk,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
After months of “hurry up and wait,” Creole and I and our best friends,
Fabiana Merceau and her husband Didier, had been the winning bid on the old
run-down motel in the heart of Tarpon Cove in the Florida Keys. We had
renovated it in record time and named it Beachside for its location across the
street from water access. We’d agreed on most things, except when a vote was
taken about who would handle guest relations and any irksome problems that were
bound to happen. It was decided three to one that everything could be pushed
off on me.
Creole, who’d stopped to check on Mother, appeared by my side and also
glanced inside. “We need to figure out if the woman is a registered guest who
wandered into the wrong room, and if not, figure out what we’re going to do
with her. All the rooms are booked, and it’s not a good idea to set a precedent
for guests sleeping their drunk off by the pool.”
“I’ll roust her and, if necessary, call her a cab.” I entered the room and
was overwhelmed by the sick smell. Groaning inwardly at the cleanup that would
be needed, I grabbed her dress off the bed and crossed the space. Suddenly, a
pair of hands grabbed my upper arms and jerked me back, turning me away, but
not before I saw the revolver lying next to her hand and the pool of blood
around her head.
“Babe, I’ll take it from here.” Creole led me back to the door. “We need to
keep everyone out.” He waved his arm, motioning to Didier, who stood a foot
away, Fab by his side.
Already, several people had gathered at the window and were peering inside,
a couple of them holding up their phones to take pictures—of what, they didn’t
know, but that wasn’t a factor.
“Keep these people back,” Creole told Didier, lowering his voice to add,
“We’ve got a body.” He took out his phone and called 911, going into cop mode,
which was familiar to him from his days as an undercover officer before
injuries sidelined him and he decided that he’d had enough.
“You okay, Madison?” Fab asked, and put her arm around me. I nodded. “I’ll
be right back.” She went into the room and closed the drapes, much to the
annoyance of the lookie-loos. Then she came back out and stood by my side. “Do
you know what happened?”
“It looks like suicide. We need to make sure that none of the guests skip
out, in case the cops want to talk to anyone.” I looked over her shoulder and
took a head count. “Maybe they won’t be questioned, since it’s self-inflicted
and not murder, but I’d hate to guess wrong and be in trouble.”
“Once news of this gets out, our bookings will skyrocket. Not that they’re
not good already,” Fab added at my horrified look.
Didier appeared next to Fab and hooked his arm around her, kissing the top
of her head and brushing her long brown hair over her shoulder. “I’ll see to
the guests and make sure everyone gets a drink refill.”
“Will you check on Mother?” I asked Fab, knowing that she could get
information out of her faster than anyone.
“Too late. She and the husband lit out of here,” said Fab, who never missed
a thing. “I got as close as I could to eavesdrop and still remain unobtrusive.”
She smirked. “Spoon tried to get her to stay, telling her the cops would have a
few questions, but she wasn’t having any of it and about tripped out of her
sandals getting off the property.”
I’d never hear the end of it now. Mother had dragged her feet RSVPing for
the opening gala, and as a result, she’d gotten the last room, which was
rumored to be haunted. It was also the nicest room, in my opinion. When she
figured out which room she’d been assigned, she flipped. Even though she
thought the whole ghost story was nonsense, that didn’t mean she wanted to
sleep in the room.
The property had an interesting history. Two men with a long business
history had partnered and built the motel in the early 1950s and turned it into
a profitable venture. Several years later, one of the partners suffered a heart
attack and died. The other, seeing an opportunity to make a higher profit,
turned it into an adult motel, planning to triple the revenue with a
pay-by-the-hour plan, not factoring in either the seedy element it would
attract or losing out on the traffic of those wanting to avoid late-night
antics, who moved on down the road.
Isabella Sloan, the widow of the dead man, had been swindled out of her half
of the property by the so-called family friend and partner. Even worse, he’d
left her penniless, and she was eventually forced to sign the family home over
to the bank. One night, with nowhere to go, she’d checked into the end room
with her three small children and refused to leave. Days later, after a
screaming match between her and the partner, her body had washed up on the
beach. It was ruled a homicide, but no one had ever been charged.
The motel’s colorful history had it that Isabella had never checked out of
the room, and she could still be seen at times, gazing out the window. Some
claimed they’d seen her around other parts of the property. It was also rumored
that she wasn’t always a gracious hostess and often didn’t allow guests a good
night’s sleep, instead choosing to throw objects around the room.
The only odd occurrence that had happened since we acquired the property had
taken place during the re-painting of the room, which was to be restored to its
original appearance at my insistence and painted white, rather than one of the
colors that had been chosen for the other rooms. The painter had mistakenly
hauled in a container of blue, and before he could dip his roller, it had
overturned. He swore he’d been a foot away when it happened. Thankfully, the
flooring was getting replaced anyway.
Police cars screamed closer and double-parked out front. Sheriff’s Deputy
Kevin Cory got out of the first car, his partner behind him, and was the first
to come through the gate. We’d torn down the rickety fencing and put in a low
brick wall that didn’t obstruct the view and doubled as seating for the truly
bored, who could count cars as they crawled by, depending on traffic flow.
I waved Kevin over. We tolerated one another and made feeble attempts not to
bother each other, but sometimes, irritating each other was too good to pass
up. “If you had accepted our invitation and taken the night off, you’d already
be here,” I said when he got closer.
“Opening night and already a triple murder.” Kevin laughed at his hilarious
self. Oftentimes, he was the only one to find his jokes funny. Did it bother
him? Oh, heck no.
“When word of that exaggeration rolls around town, I’ll know who to blame.”
I waved him over to Creole.
“Anyone cut out the back?” Kevin asked.
I flinched, knowing he was referring to the times law enforcement arrived at
my bar, Jake’s, and those with warrants beat it out through the kitchen exit.
“Just my mother, who was the one to discover the body. You know where to find
Kevin nodded and caught up with Creole.
I hung back, not sure what to do next. I’d been through enough police
investigations to know they preferred that people stay out of the way and not
tamper with evidence.
“What do I do if someone wants a refund on their room?” our portly,
grey-haired resident manager asked, having barked at a few people to move out
of the way, to which they grudgingly responded by moving an inch or two,
refusing to do more than that lest they miss out on something good. Cootie
stared down at me, a concerned look on his face, and fidgeted from one foot to
We’d advertised for a couple to manage the property, and only eccentrics had
shown up, and that was putting it nicely. It was also my suspicion that that
was why I got voted problem-solver. Ready to give up and not willing to run the
place myself, I’d decided to hire the next person in the door. Enter an
acquaintance, Cootie Shine, who’d helped Fab and me out of a bad situation in
Card Sound. He was perfect for the job—outgoing personality, oddball rapport,
didn’t take sass, and packed a Glock that he knew how to use.
Glancing around at the lookie-loos, I didn’t think that would be a problem.
I’d hate to ask those who continued to stare eagle-eyed at the room door what
their preference was. Multiple bodies? A smoking gun or two? “Since this was an
invitation-only event and I know everyone here, you send anyone asking for a
refund to me.” I shook my head. “They’re lucky we don’t charge extra.”
“Did you know the deceased?” Cootie asked.
“No, and I’d like to know how the woman got access to the room and why she
showed up on this night, of all nights, to off herself.”
“I did my best to keep an eye on things, but she must have got past my radar
Rude Banner had rushed up in time to hear my question. Rude, short for
Gertrude, was Cootie’s almost-wife by her own definition, insisting that they’d
marry one of these days. The short, grey-haired woman never failed to speak her
mind and was a handful, according to Cootie, which he said with a twinkle in
his eye. The pair had met while hibernating in the mangroves and been on and
off for a number of years. Both were vague as to how many.
More patrol cars and a forensics van pulled up, along with an ambulance.
“Keep everyone busy with food and drink,” I said to Rude. “I’ll ask
Creole—he’ll know what’s going to happen next. We should be prepared to have
the cops tell everyone to leave.”
“Don’t you go worrying none,” Rude said. “This night is going to be the talk
of the town, more so since it went down in the haunted room.”
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.”