The sun was shining, not a single cloud in the baby blue sky. Coffee once a week was now mandatory, at one house or the other, with our friends, Fabiana and Didier, the hot, dark-haired, blue-eyed French couple that were also our neighbors and business partners. This week, it was my turn, and I’d corralled everyone to take their mugs and sit out on the deck, which wasn’t a struggle, since it was an amazing morning and all of us enjoyed looking at the beach below. Didier joined us late, as he’d stopped to sneak my cats, Jazz and Snow, a treat. They could be asleep in the bedroom, but once easy-touch Didier crossed the threshold, they made their appearance known, weaving in between his legs.
My phone rang, and I groaned inwardly, as early meant trouble. I glanced at the screen and attempted to cover my wince, and casually slid it across the table to my husband.
Creole looked at the screen, and back at me, his blue eyes dancing with laughter. “You know I love you, babes, but this is out of my skill set.”
“Oh brother,” Fab snapped. She grabbed up the phone and showed it to Didier, who shook his head with a smirk. It stopped ringing, and she slid it back to me.
Then it started to ring again. Macklin Lane would never give up so easily. She managed a ten-unit beach property that I owned across town; circus ringmaster would be a fitting title. My not answering only meant that she’d continue to call until I did.
I answered and breathed into the phone.
“I know what you were doing—passing the phone around, seeing who had the tonsils or other body part to answer. It’s just me; how bad could it be?” Mac unleashed a deranged laugh.
“Warning: you’re on speaker.” It seriously saved time not having to repeat every word, not to mention saving me from hearing a lecture on something I forgot.
“There’s a problem that needs your attention. I tried to be the fixer on this one but got nowhere, despite attempting to cash in a few favors.”
Favors were traded like currency between family and friends. They came with a no-griping clause—just get off your… and do.
“Hold on a second…” I downed my coffee. “I needed a shot of caffeine to fortify my nerves before you cut to the chase.”
“Crum was arrested for the murder of Travis West,” Mac blurted out.
Everyone’s eyebrows went up.
“That’s ridiculous on several levels. That they barely knew one another being one,” I said in disbelief.
“Shot point-blank in the chest—West, not Crum. Kaboom.” Mac yelled the last word.
The men grinned.
Fab rolled her eyes. “Sounds messy.”
“If the killer was that close, sounds like someone he knew,” Creole said.
“To my knowledge, Crum knew of the man, but they were casual acquaintances at best,” I said. “They had one confrontation. It resulted in a black eye for Crum, and if the esteemed professor was going to kill the man, it would’ve been then, not months later.”
Professor Crum—first name “none of your business” I’d heard him say a time or two—had retired from a high-brow university in California. In order to get your resume looked at by the five-star college, at a minimum, brains—and a lot of them—were required. Years back, he’d moved to sunny Florida, Tarpon Cove in the Keys to be exact.
“Anyone who knows Crum knows that he likes to talk… not get his brains rearranged.” I made a face. “He has his eccentricities, but he’s not known for going off half-cocked.”
Crum had helped me concoct a plan to get West to buy a lot that shared a property line with his mansion. The Taco Wagon had been parked on that land and, though not on the main highway, did a brisk business… until it blew up. More than a few people suspected West of the arson, although nothing was proven. As for the owners, they just wanted to be able to sell the lot and retire, which wasn’t looking likely with West breathing down the neck of any would-be buyers. My idea had been for Crum to do the heavy lifting, in that he gathered together a group of unusual characters, and staged an obnoxious spectacle on the lot in the hopes of motivating West to snap up the property to prevent them from becoming permanent neighbors. There was zero chance of that happening, but West didn’t know that, and the plan worked, as the last thing he wanted was never-ending antics and crazies for neighbors.
“Agree with you.” Mac snorted, loudly enough that hopefully she was outside and whatever flew out of her nose didn’t do serious property damage. “But Crum’s keister is in the slammer, and he goes before a judge in two days for a bail hearing. When he called, I wasn’t going to answer—good thing I did. Told him we had bail covered and promised a lawyer. I assured him we wouldn’t let him twist. You’re not going to make a big ole liar out of me, are you?”
“Just because he’s a pain in my backside isn’t a good reason to ditch him when he’s in trouble.” I excelled in plan-making, and my mind was moving at a rapid pace. It shouldn’t be hard, since I’d been down the road of getting folks out of jail more times than I could count. “Bail—that’s the easy part. Lawyer… Did you call Cruz?” Cruz Campion was, according to himself, the best criminal lawyer in the universe, although his billboards only mentioned south Florida. The man wasn’t short on ego.
Mac hesitated so long that anyone else would’ve hung up, thinking she’d already done so. “Cruz’s exact words were ‘Hell no,’ and I spoke to the man directly. He’s still not over Crum shtupping his grandmother.”
Cruz’s granny had come to town ready to party with any man in sight—young, old, and preferably still breathing… except for that one. Somehow, it’d never occurred to Cruz to hold his grandmother responsible for her hard-partying ways instead of blaming the men she seduced.
“Too damn bad,” I practically shrieked. Creole and Didier grinned, and Fab rubbed her ears. I managed to calm down… some. “After everything we’ve done for him and his zillion relatives!”
“There’s Tank,” Fab said. “He doesn’t need to know he was second choice.”
Fab had met Tank—AKA Patrick Cannon, but only in the courtroom—during a jail visit. She’d found him sitting behind the glass panel, waiting on a visitor that was a no-show, and saw that as an open invitation to sit down and chat it up, rapidly discovering that he’d been arrested thanks to mistaken identity. He was swiftly released, and it turned out that he was a criminal defense attorney who’d recently relocated to the Cove and opened a one-man office. He’d assured us that if the case was beyond his capabilities, he’d find us someone who could handle it and it wouldn’t be a slouch either. He’d been as good as his word.
“Called Tank already. He’s escorting his mother to an out-of-state funeral for a relative he never heard of. Sounded irked over the whole drama.” Mac sucked up every last drop of her drink, judging by the noise. “Back to Cruz. I reminded him that when he asks, I deliver. Then I practically begged.”
“Beg?” I snapped. “I don’t think so. You’re never to do that again.”
“You could get someone to represent Crum for the bail hearing and then have Tank take over when he gets back,” Didier said. “Make it clear to the other attorney up front that he’s only filling in.”
That was a good idea. I winked at the man, and he grinned back. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll have an attorney signed up by the end of the day.”
“Hold your horses,” Mac cautioned. “I have a warning for you. Some would probably call it a threat.”
“What are you talking about?” Creole demanded testily.
“Let me guess—Cruz sent a message that Madison better not show up in his courtroom to strongarm him? His office, perhaps?” Fab surmised. “Am I right?” She nodded, answering her own question.
“If you show up anywhere, Cruz will have you arrested,” Mac said. “Under no circumstances is he going to represent Crum.”
“Why don’t Creole and I pay the man a visit and see what we can work out?” Didier offered.
I reached over and patted Didier’s hand, loving his fierce tone. “When does Tank get back?”
“A week.” Mac whistled loudly.
I was afraid to ask what was going on now. “This requires a Plan B.”
“More like G or Z,” Fab mumbled.
“Are any of his relations currently staying in one of the cottages?” I asked.
“Another tidbit I’m to pass along—he’s immune to blackmail.” Mac sighed. “Cruz covered all the bases when he issued his stay-away orders. He didn’t specifically mention knowing that four of his aunts and uncles checked in three days ago, but since he’s got his nose in everything...”
“Let the relations know that I’ll be over right before lunch and am requesting a sit-down out by the pool. Text me their names. I’m not Fab and can’t get away with ‘Hey you.’” I wrinkled my nose at the woman, who smirked back. “Not sure if they know about Crum; if not, mum’s the word. I’m certain all the guests will be asking questions when he doesn’t show up to teach half-naked yoga.” Or whatever he had going on at the moment. He claimed variety kept them hungry for more. I’d taken a softer stance since he helped me out and tried not to squash too much of his fun, as long as it didn’t venture into anything illegal.
“Before we hang up, there’s one more thing…” Mac paused. “Take me off speaker.”
“She’ll just have to repeat it,” Fab huffed.
I picked up the phone and did as she requested. “You’re okay, aren’t you?”
“I’m not sick or anything. Just need to talk to you for a few away from Fab. You’ll understand when we have our chat.”
“It’s better this way,” Mac said in an evasive tone.
“One more thing before we hang up—get Rude to teach this morning’s poolside exercise class. If anyone could match Crum’s level of outrageousness, it’d be her. Anyone asks about Crum, make something up.”
I hung up, set my phone down, and turned my attention to all the eyes focused on me. “All I know is Mac has a personal issue. You know that people will talk to me about anything.” Having that ability made for more than a few awkward situations.
Fab rolled her eyes. It was hard not to laugh.
“I’m afraid to ask what you’re planning.” Creole nudged me.
“I’m making a mental checklist. You’ll just have to trust me.”
Creole and Didier groaned.
I grinned at them.
“Don’t worry, guys,” Fab said. “I’ll go along with her and make sure she stays out of trouble.” They laughed, knowing that between the two of us, the situation could easily explode.
Not even five minutes after my husband, Creole, blew out the door to work, it reopened and my best friend, Fabiana Merceau, snuck inside. Did she knock? Ring the bell? No. Instead, she’d whipped out her lockpick—which she pocketed with a smirk, swinging her long brown hair—and skinnied into the entry, confident that I wouldn’t shoot.
I beckoned her into the kitchen, where I was making coffee. It was such a beautiful day—blue skies, a fluffy cloud or two—and I couldn’t wait to sit outside on the deck. I put the seashell mugs that I’d scored from a local store on a wooden bamboo tray and carried it outside, through the open bank of sliders, to the deck that overlooked the blue-green water below. My favorite place to sit.
“Next time, maybe run by the bakery when you’re planning on stopping by early,” I said in a slightly admonishing tone, enjoying every minute. “Or… I know, bake something. Fresh from your oven would be fun.”
“Madison.” Fab feigned a big sigh. “You’ve had enough caffeine.”
Creole and I had bought the house next door to Fab and Didier in “the compound,” moving from our previous residence at the opposite end of the street. What was now our house and the other house on the cul-de-sac had originally been a wedding present from Fab’s father after they’d bought the third house for themselves. They’d recently rented the remaining house to Casio, an ex-cop, and his kids.
It was nice to have our own house and furniture again. It was a long time coming, after my house suffered major fire damage and Creole’s ended up full of bad memories.
Fab and I grabbed mugs of coffee and settled into a pair of chairs that looked out at the beach, where waves gently lapped the shore on the strip of sand that we shared.
“I’m still loving your surprise.” Fab pointed at the dock and laughed. “Although it didn’t go off quite as planned.”
“I envisioned a dramatic unveiling once the dock was completed and was so wrapped up in it coming off as a surprise that I didn’t think about not being able to hide a boat pulling up and offloading lumber and construction supplies.” I’d had the dock constructed between our properties, extending from the beach out into the water. Included in the design was a large rectangular deck at the end that Fab and I had furnished with chaises for kicking back and enjoying the sunrise or sunset. At least the construction crew’s arrival had caught everyone off guard, and that part was truly a surprise. It had been fun to watch it being built.
Fab wasn’t easy to read unless you knew her, and I did. In truth, she still pulled one over on me more often than I wanted to admit. I’d upped my game and still wasn’t close to evening the score, although I had a few tick marks in my column. If she knew that her face telegraphed when she wanted something, she’d be irked and would work to make sure it didn’t happen again.
The approach of a boat going way too fast cut through the morning quiet. It caught our attention as it grew closer, skimming across the calm water. We watched as the sleek speedboat came into full view and slowed to a crawl. The man at the wheel waved his arm, and two men popped up, each holding one end of a body, which they hurled into the water without hesitation. The body hit the end of the dock with a thud that made me wince, then slid off into the water. Seconds later, the men popped back into sight, and another body followed, this one landing with a splash. The boat roared off.
Fab and I had jumped up after the first one landed and leaned over the railing.
“What just happened?” I stuttered. “Do you think they’re still alive?”
“Neither resurfaced.” Fab grabbed my hand and pulled me over to the stairs. “So probably not.”
Once on the sand, I jerked out of her hold. “I’m thinking you can investigate on your own.”
“I’m under strict orders to behave.” Fab grabbed my wrist and urged me to keep up with her race walk.
“I’ll bet you hung on every word of Didier’s edict and promised ever so sweetly.” Her grin told me I was correct. Didier knew from long experience that he needed to keep an eye on his wife or she’d go off half-wild. “We both know those two will most likely turn out to be dead, and that’s your forte. Corpses make me barfy.”
“My forte?” Fab’s brows went up. “I’m here to investigate, not jump into the water and fish out a body. That’s out of my skill set. If I see signs of life, I’ll toss out one of the life rings.”
I once again jerked out of her hold and skidded to a stop several feet back from the steps to the dock. “Once you’ve made a determination, I’m happy to call 911. Since I left my phone at the house, I’ll run back.” Meaning that I’d walk slowly and stop to pocket a shell or two.
“Nice try.” Fab pulled both of our phones out of her pocket and handed me mine. “So much for my plan to prank you. I promise, though, that I’ll make it up to you.” She moved to the side of the dock and waded in up to the hemline of her sundress. She bent down and scanned the water, then retreated to the sand and circled around to the other side.
“Almost forgot that you rented your other house to a retired detective.” I turned and eyed the exterior of Casio Famosa’s place, wishing he were out on his deck so I could wave wildly. “He needs to get his rear over here and brush up on his detective skills. Probably a good idea for him to stay on his game.”
“When you call him, be sure you issue that order in the same snooty tone,” Fab said over her shoulder. She was now on the dock, moving toward open water and the point of impact for the first man.
“Please don’t lean so far over; it’s giving me the barfs.” Fab ignored me. I called Casio. It rang twice and went to voicemail. How dare he? We needed to have a talk about re-routing my calls. He’d laugh until I did it to him. I called again. Same thing.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have good news. There’s no sign of either man.” Fab straightened and circled the dock one more time.
I continued to call Casio, waiting a minute in between so it wouldn’t go immediately to voicemail.
On about the sixth time, he answered. “This better be good; I’m in a meeting with the Chief,” he grouched.
“Too loud.” I jerked the phone back from my ear. “There’s a dead body at your house. You might want to get it disposed of before the kids get home,” I told him in a so-there tone, then hung up and turned off my phone. I’d turn it back on in a minute or two.
“Casio’s going to find out you’re full of it and then what?” Fab turned and headed back toward me.
“Too late. He’ll be home by then.” I fell in behind her as she came down the steps and sunk my toes in the sand. “He’ll be bringing the cavalry, judging by the laughter in the background.”
Fab’s phone started ringing. She took one look at the screen and passed it off to me. “Didier. That tells us that the guys were all together when you called.”
I thrust it back at her, and she stepped back, a “you’re on your own” look on her face. It stopped ringing and started again. I ran after her, and she eluded me, laughing. I finally answered. “Are you on the way home?” I asked in a saccharine tone.
There was a pause before he said, “You’re not my wife.”
“You’re right.” I wanted to laugh but managed to stifle it. “Fab thinks that because I was a tad misleading to Casio, I should field any calls from you guys. So here I am. How fun is that?” In the silence, I heard a car honking and knew that the men were on the way home. “You better catch,” I said to Fab and tossed her phone through the air without hesitation. She caught it. “That hottie French dude you’re married to is being mean and not talking. You deal with him.” I fished my phone out of my pocket and turned it back on.
I only half-listened as Fab filled him in on the details. The call ended with kissy noises.
“The guys were having a meeting, and the Chief and Casio walked in, looking for snacks. Lark spoils everyone by stocking the pantry with a wide variety of junk food and inviting all to fill their pockets. Casio wasn’t the least bit busy; he just didn’t want to take his attention away from his cinnamon roll. Another Lark treat. On her way into the office this morning, she stopped by the bakery.”
I’d hired Lark Pontana as the office manager of The Boardwalk, a joint family-and-friends real estate venture. Creole, Didier, and my brother, Brad had formed a real estate partnership, and the biggest project to date was The Boardwalk. It consisted of attractions, shops, restaurants, a collection of rides, and a hundred-slip marina, and continued to expand. They dealt with day-to-day operations; the rest of the family were silent investors and only got called on when a vote was needed for a new project.
“And so…” I threw out my hands.
“Get ready, because the guys are headed this way. Didier put me on speaker so he wouldn’t have to repeat everything, and I heard Casio making the 911 call. He mentioned the sheriff’s office sending out a boat or two, so don’t be surprised when one motors up. It’s been a while since we dealt with that agency, so I forget how they respond.”
“I take it we’re to hang around, like any other crime scene?” I asked.
“You know how the cops feel about eyewitnesses running off. You can bet there will be a hundred questions.” Fab sighed. “It’s the consensus of Creole and Casio that they’re probably both dead or one or both would’ve crawled out of the water or at least be hanging on one of the ladders yelling for help.”
“Let’s go back and suck down the last of our coffee before everyone arrives.”
Fab linked her arm in mine. “What we need is binoculars. I’m thinking we get cutesy storage boxes so they’ll be handy.”
“I hope you’re not implying this will be a regular occurrence.” I made a face at her. “I’m one-upping you and getting a telescope. When I’m not on dead-body watch, I can peek in your windows.”
Fab ground to a stop, turned, and eyed the exterior of her house. “That would be boring.”